By Nicola Berkovic
13 July 2019
Shiny motorcycle parts, soccer balls and jars of Nutella adorn the walls at Criniti’s in Parramatta, in Sydney’s west.
Rowdy groups gather there to drink and eat pizza by the meter.
On a Saturday morning in February two years ago, two Muslim women sit quietly over brunch and share their relationship troubles. Kondkhar Fariha Elahi, 29, is from Bangladesh; her friend, Benazir Mesbah, is from Afghanistan.
Elahi’s husband has recently returned to Sydney from Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. He spent almost three months there in the hope that when he returned she would have changed her mind about wanting to leave the marriage — but if anything, the time apart has made her more desperate to leave.
Mesbah is also in an unhappy relationship. The women talk about renting a place together and starting new chapters in their lives. They flick through real estate listings for two-bedroom apartments in the nearby suburbs of Northmead and North Rocks.
Elahi tells Mesbah she wants to travel to Europe. She has never been anywhere outside Bangladesh and Australia, and wants a chance to see the world.
But that night, her dreams would be snuffed out by the man who promised to love and protect her, Shahab Ahmed. An autopsy revealed 14 stab wounds to her neck, back, cheek and chest. Elahi was known to her family as “Jyoti” — “light” in Bengali.
The towering, heavyset 33-year-old Ahmed had stabbed her repeatedly until he broke the tip of the knife between her two front teeth. Then he waited 10 minutes; he smoked a few cigarettes and updated his Facebook status to “THE END”. Next, he logged into his wife’s account, replacing her profile photograph with an image of the couple in happier times. In it, she is smiling and Ahmed stands behind her with his chin resting on her shoulder, her arm slung around his neck.
Finally, at 9.48pm, when he was sure Elahi had stopped breathing, he called triple-0. He told the operator he had killed his wife, and that she was dead.
Theirs had been a “love” marriage. Elahi had defied her parents’ wishes by marrying her university sweetheart.
Her parents, middle-class Bangladeshis, had wanted to arrange a marriage for the eldest of their two daughters, to someone who was already set up with a job and a home.
But in September 2011, Elahi and Ahmed tied the knot. Soon after, the couple moved to Sydney so she could undertake a master of applied finance at the University of Western Sydney.
Five-and-a-half years later, on the night of February 18, 2017, Mesbah realised something was up when she flicked through Facebook and noticed Elahi’s profile picture had been updated.
She sent a WhatsApp message to warn her that Ahmed may have hacked into her Facebook account.
She never heard back. But it was midnight, so she rolled over and went to sleep.
Ahmed was sentenced on May 30 for Elahi’s murder. He will spend at least 20 years behind bars.
The judge said the sentence was aimed not only at punishing Ahmed and protecting the community but at deterring others from acting on “feelings of possession and jealousy, from pursuing domestic violence against those with whom they share a home … with weapons ready to hand, such as kitchen knives”.
“Those who are dissatisfied with a spouse or partner’s desire to leave the relationship, must be dissuaded from so arming themselves and acting upon the impulse to kill, which such a desire may generate,” the judge said.
“That is because in the society of which we are all members, none of us is at liberty to act on such dreadful impulses, no matter how angry or wronged we may feel by the conduct of those with whom we have been involved in intimate relationships.”
Less than two weeks before the sentence was delivered, Egyptian-born mother-of-three Gihan Kerollos was stabbed to death as she was leaving work at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, in Sydney’s east. She was 47.
Tearful colleagues lay red roses at a vigil in Randwick on June 14 to commemorate her life. Her husband Mourad, 60, has been charged with her murder and will face court on Thursday. The circumstances of her death are not clear and it will be up to the court to determine what happened.
According to Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women Australia research, Kerollos was the 20th woman killed this year.
University of NSW’s Patricia Cullen, who is reviewing family and intimate partner homicide cases in NSW, says her research suggests women born outside Australia are over-represented in murders by intimate partners or family members.
“We really need to look more closely at strengthening service responses across several sectors including justice, legal, health and social services,” Dr Cullen says.
Domestic Violence NSW chief executive Moo Baulch says there is no evidence to suggest family violence is more prevalent in any particular community; the problem affects women of all ages, socio-economic groups and cultures. “It’s not that men in migrant communities are any more violent; it’s that women in those communities face more barriers to leaving … and that’s why we need specialist responses,” she says.
Adele Murdolo, executive director of Melbourne’s Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, says research shows that migrant and refugee women access family violence services at a much later stage than other women.
The reasons are multiple: a lack of knowledge about available services or what behaviours are outlawed in Australia, a lack of support networks and language barriers can all make it hard for women to leave or seek the help they need. Women on temporary visas can also fear deportation or find it more difficult to access income support or public housing or may not be allowed to seek employment.
Elahi had been asking Ahmed for a divorce for two years, but each time she broached the topic, she felt forced to stay.
On one occasion, he picked up a knife and threatened to slit his wrists. Another time, he punched a wall and fractured his hand while the couple were arguing. Then he had a tumour that had to be removed, and she nursed him back to health.
Mesbah says Elahi felt pressure from her parents to work on her marriage and feared divorce would bring shame on her family. She had chosen this man against their wishes and now she could not expect their encouragement to leave him.
“It’s funny, because she’s from a moderate family,” Mesbah says. “Unfortunately, you can be as modern as possible but in the back of your mind you still have that cultural pressure … That makes it so hard for women like Fariha: they have their family on their back, they have the husband who doesn’t want to leave, for them to seek a divorce is super hard to do.”
Mesbah says that among close-knit communities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and other countries from her region, there can be a strong stigma attached to divorce. Some women leave but then find their invitations to weddings and parties dry up. One friend was called a “whore” behind her back after she left an unhappy marriage and then found new love.
“When you get shunned like that it’s hard to deal with,” she says.
Mesbah says the husbands of some of her Afghan friends do not approve of their wives visiting her home because she is a single woman, living alone.
Amani Haydar knows the lasting impact of family violence.
Her mother Salwa was murdered in front of her younger sister Ola in 2015. Her father Haydar Haydar is serving a minimum of 18 years for the crime.
Salwa, like Elahi, had made it clear several times that she wanted a divorce. Haydar had said he would not agree to a divorce until his two youngest daughters were married, because he knew “how society viewed a divorced woman raising single daughters”.
Like Ahmed, Haydar returned to his home country, Lebanon, when his wife insisted the marriage was over. He became convinced she was having an affair, although she wasn’t.
The day he returned to Sydney from Lebanon, the pair argued; Salwa asked him to fetch some cooking oil and he refused.
Haydar used a 21cm knife with an orange handle to stab his wife 30 times, also wounding Ola as she tried to throw her body between her parents.
Amani wishes people understood how unhealthy it is to be trapped in a toxic or abusive relationship.
She says some religious organisations are educating women that divorce is Islamically sanctioned and that it’s OK to seek help.
“A fear of being rejected by your community is a very powerful fear,” she says.
“If divorce was more accepted then I think that would be something my mother might have considered sooner or taken a step towards at an earlier stage and I think it does remain one of the barriers that women face.”
Memories of lost mum
The last time Amani saw her mum, they caught up over coffee and sweets at Abla’s, a popular Lebanese pastry shop in Granville, not far from Parramatta.
Amani was pregnant with her first child, and they discussed her plans for the baby room. Salwa loved nothing more than to redecorate.
Now, the eldest of Salwa’s three daughters recreates her mother’s face in exquisite artworks; expresses her grief in cobalt-blue tears. She also talks to schoolchildren about controlling behaviour, which may not readily be identifiable as violence, but can raise red flags: partners who constantly check your whereabouts, put you down, or isolate you from friends and family.
While some assume there is a gradual escalation of violence that leads to murder, this is often not the case, she says.
“They might not necessarily resort to physical violence until those other forms of coercion stop working,” Amani says. “That’s why there can be such a dramatic switch from emotional abuse to fatal violence.”
Salwa was energetic and creative. Although she had four children, she completed several courses and worked in drug and alcohol counselling. At the time she was murdered, she was studying social work at the University of Western Sydney.
Amani says that, growing up, she would have described her parents’ marriage as “unhappy”; she did not have the language of abuse. But her mother, because of her training, identified her husband’s behaviour as “gaslighting” — he belittled her, undermined her confidence and self-belief.
“My mum always felt that there was nothing she could do that would actually make my dad praise her or feel proud of her,” Amani says.
Salwa was 18 when she married Haydar, who was 13 years older, and had her first child at 19. Early marriage is not inherently “toxic”, Amani says, but can increase a woman’s vulnerability; it can contribute to a power imbalance and mean a woman is less likely to be set up in a career, with financial independence.
Talking to schoolchildren about domestic violence pulls the scabs from Amani’s heart, leaving her grief exposed — but also makes her feel empowered. She’s terrified of having to explain her mother’s absence to her children, now three and two, when they are older.
“It’s very hard to accept that a person who was a huge part of your everyday life is gone,” she says. “But I don’t feel she’s completely gone. Through the work I do I’m really involved in reviving her memory … to effect positive change.”
The Control Factor
Ahmed was large but quietly spoken and painfully shy. His wife was tiny, with a beautiful smile that drew people towards her.
Mesbah first met the couple when they moved into her apartment at Rydalmere, shortly after they arrived in Australia. She says there was no physical violence but Ahmed was controlling.
When the couple first arrived, Elahi was studying and working on her feet at a takeaway chicken shop, Oporto, to try to make ends meet. She later found a job at iiNet, before landing a job as an analyst for the National Broadband Network. Ahmed, on the other hand, at first struggled to hold down a job, then found work at the Arts Hotel in Paddington, sitting at the reception desk. He had failed to convert his Bangladeshi driver’s licence to an Australian licence, instead relying on Elahi to drive him. At the end of the day, Elahi would massage his feet. If he wanted a snack in the middle of the night, she would get up to prepare it for him.
“It made me so mad,” Mesbah says. “I used to say, ‘you’re the one who went to uni, who cooked, he should be rubbing your feet. She used to say, ‘it’s OK, he’s tired’ … She was too sweet and too kind.”
By 2015, the couple had problems in their marriage. Elahi thought Ahmed was lazy.
Ahmed asked Elahi’s father to come to Sydney to help the couple sort out their differences. When he arrived in April that year, Elahi was overjoyed to see him. She wanted to stay up talking, but Ahmed was tired, and insisted his wife go to bed at the same time.
“These are the little things she hated, to be controlled by him constantly,” Mesbah says.
“Where are you going? What time are you coming home? Go to bed. If I’m up, you have to get up … She was an educated girl and no one likes to be controlled.”
Mesbah says Elahi did not see herself as a victim of abuse because her husband had never physically hurt her. “I said, ‘if he is trying to control you, that is abuse’,” she says. “She was like, ‘no, it’s because he loves me’. This is the problem for a lot of women from our background, they think if a man tries to control them, it’s a sign of love, but it’s not a sign of love, it’s a sign of control, of them trying to exercise their authority over you.”
Early in 2015, Elahi and Ahmed travelled to Bangladesh with another couple, who were close friends. Elahi and the friend’s husband, Omar Khan, confided in each other that they were having marital problems. Ahmed asked his wife at the time if they were having an affair; she denied it.
At some point, however, a relationship developed, and Elahi wrote Khan a love letter; she said one day she could see herself becoming his wife. The letter found its way to Khan’s wife, who showed it to Ahmed in September 2016. It triggered a strong response. Elahi called police that day to say her husband had threatened to kill himself.
Two years after first confronting his wife about her feelings for Khan, Ahmed used the discovery of intimate texts between the pair as justification for her murder.
Prosecutors did not argue the murder was premeditated. But while he was in Bangladesh, Ahmed had searched online how to punish adulterous wives.
It upsets Mesbah that Elahi has been painted as an adulterer. She says the problems in their marriage began before any relationship between Elahi and Khan started. Elahi had not attended social gatherings with her husband in two years.
“She told me, ‘we don’t hug, we don’t kiss, it’s over, he needs to understand that’,” Mesbah says. Mesbah says Elahi told her she had not slept with Khan. Khan testified in court the pair had engaged in “passionate kissing”.
“I asked Fariha, ‘did anything physical happen between the two of you?’, because we did talk about sex, and she said, ‘no, you know me, I would never do that’,” Mesbah says.
She says that during the Pokemon craze, Elahi and Khan would meet to catch Pokemons together.
“That’s how innocent she was,” she says. “It was a release from her troubles.”
Over their last brunch, Mesbah told Elahi she would sign her divorce papers, as a witness the couple had lived under one roof but had been separated for more than a year. Mesbah says women experiencing violence should not have to rely on a third party to prove they have been separated for 12 months, or be forced to wait a year before being allowed to get divorced.
Although Elahi cared far more about being granted a Muslim divorce, Mesbah says she wanted the civil divorce to prove to Ahmed the marriage was over.
“He wasn’t going to give her the Muslim divorce,” she says. “So she wanted something to say, ‘look I’ve done this part, you need to do your part and let me go’.”
Ahmed later told police he had wanted to “keep” Elahi because of what he had invested in her education.
Tackling the Problem
The federal government’s fourth action plan to reduce violence against women and children was announced in March and set aside $328 million for frontline services, accommodation and prevention. It builds on work that began in 2010. Of that, $12.1m has been earmarked for violence prevention strategies for vulnerable groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Murdolo says the amount falls far short of what is needed.
“It’s a national emergency that’s not being properly recognised,” she says. “We need to see billions going into this.”
She believes about 10 per cent of the total set aside to tackle violence should be invested in prevention work.
“We really need proper investment at both ends of the spectrum,” she says. “If we never invest in prevention, violence against women will never stop … At the same time, if we don’t invest in services, then women and children will not be safe and that’s not an acceptable situation either.”
Murdolo says that about 80 per cent of migrants and refugees come to Australia after their secondary schooling is finished, which means it is difficult to reach them with school-based programs such as the Respectful Relationships program, piloted in Victoria in 2015. It frustrates her that different states are investing in prevention projects that are not linked.
“I think that would be a great investment of funds … so we can all learn from each other instead of reinventing the wheel each time,” she says.
Catalina Valencia worked as a Spanish interpreter for 30 years and, as part of her work, helped women access domestic violence services. Now retired, she says there is a shortage of interpreters. The cases were not rare; she handled a few every week, and found many women had no idea what services were out there.
Sometimes they were referred only after landing in hospital or contacting police.
She says many migrant women listen to foreign-language media, such as SBS radio, and she believes more effort should be made to publicise support services through those channels or to produce stories about domestic violence, so that isolated women know help is available. Valencia was a victim of violence; she knows how hard it can be to take the first step.
“Sometimes you think you are the only one,” she says.
Amani sits on the board of the Bankstown Women’s Health Centre, which provides a “wraparound service” for women, providing access to counsellors, a legal clinic, medical services and nutritionist. It’s another way of reaching women experiencing violence.
“Women might turn up to see a GP or to do a healthy cooking class and … as they discuss their lives often they’ll make disclosures about abuse and then they can be referred to the appropriate pathways,” she says.
Although Amani visits schools to educate young people, she says changing the culture is hard. She wants more resources invested at the pointy end — in accommodation and help for women to leave — to prevent more murders.
Now, at 31, Amani reflects on how much more her mother could have done with her life. “She was only 45 years old when she was murdered and I think of all that potential, and of all the women out there who have so much potential but are facing barriers,” she says. “We need to unlock that.”
Source: The Australian