By Saima Mir
20 Feb 2019
I was 19 the first time marriage was mentioned. My mother told me about a young man whose family had expressed an interest in me, and then she promptly left the house. The realisation that I was of marriageable age was clearly as difficult for her as it was surprising to me. I was a geeky young woman who had never even shaken hands with a man, let alone had a boyfriend. I’d attended an all-girls Catholic school before opting to study science at university. My life was Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, X-Men and Spider-Man; summers were spent at my nani’s house in Karachi, and winters trudging through Yorkshire snow. Bespectacled before it was cool, I was short-sighted in more ways than one, young enough to believe that good things happened to good people.
My first husband was 11 years older than me. We met only once before the wedding, but spent the year leading up to the big day talking on the phone. I was in my final year at university. He was a doctor – the ideal profession for a son-in-law – and the eldest of two sons, who had moved to the US from Pakistan after finishing medical school. We married on 6 September 1996, and flew to Mississippi, where we were to live in a pretty white doll’s house of an American home.
The living room had a single brown leather sofa and a large TV with huge free-standing speakers on either side. These speakers were my first husband’s passion. He would take out a tape measure to check the distance between them, the TV and the sofa. Other than that, he was quiet, reserved. His mother, who lived with us, was not. Much of what happened during that time has faded, but a few things stay with me. The way she would make him sit on her lap, his embarrassment at her kisses, her coming into the bedroom while we slept, her odd questions about whether he used soap in the shower. I spent all day at home with her. I had no money of my own, and no way of going anywhere. He would come home from work and the three of us would sit side by side watching that enormous TV. When it got late, his mother would say, “Now go straight to bed and don’t talk.” She put a red sock in with the white wash and blamed me for ruining his lab coats. She put a hair scrunchie in the pressure cooker and told me it was God teaching e a lesson for asking her to move her hairbrush from the kitchen work surface. Was I losing my mind? Slowly I began to feel afraid for no reason; I lost weight – it seemed I had married a man and his mother.
I was in Mississippi on a three-month visitor visa. Immigration rules meant that if I applied for a green card I would be unable to return to England for at least two years. The thought of that was unbearable nd my mother advised me to come home first. From that point, the demise of the marriage was fast. I never got back on the plane to the US. My first marriage had lasted a mere three months.
At the time, divorce was uncommon in my culture. I was lucky to have parents who trusted my judgment and didn’t care what other people had to say. And people did have a lot to say. Divorce may be perfectly allowable according to Islam (the Prophet’s first wife was a divorcee), but that didn’t stop the gossip. In a society that prizes virginity, my “value” had fallen.
The easiest way for a woman to regain her status after a divorce is to say her husband was impotent. It would have been easy to say I was still a virgin, but that would have been a lie. The truth was simple. I had been married and I was now divorced. And though I knew there was nothing wrong with my decision, my relatives’ condolences left me feeling dirty, as if I had been the victim of a sex crime. I remember scrubbing myself in the shower until I almost bled, trying to clean away my shame.
My family felt that the best way to repair the situation was to marry me off again, as soon as possible. Once I was happy, they told me, I’d forget all about the past.
I was 23 the second time I got married. My second husband was only a little older than me and was full of liveliness and excitement. He had the kind of energy that comes with youth, success and arrogance. I remember looking at his trainers the first time we met, and rejoicing. My last husband had worn Hush Puppies.
“What’s stopping you saying yes?” he asked the second time we met. He promised me that if his family interfered he would stand up for me; he promised me it would be different. I think back to that time and wonder why I didn’t say no. I can only say that I thought my elders knew better. I was raised as a people-pleaser; I was also raised to see the best in people, even if that meant disregarding my own instincts.
But once again, I found myself living in an extended family. We lived with his mum, dad and little sister, and had frequent visits from his second sister, her husband and their two small children. There was also a third sister who lived with her extended family and who was held up by them as someone I should aspire to be like.
The day after the wedding, we visited his parents before boarding a flight for our honeymoon. On arrival I could sense something was amiss. My father-in-law raised an eyebrow and asked me what I was wearing. I was dressed in a ghagara, a kind of heavily gathered skirt that skims the ground. “A skirt,” I said. His grimace displayed his displeasure. My husband told me later that his father had an aversion to skirts and saw my wearing one as a personal affront. He had an aversion to many things, it would turn out.
I had decided to double-barrel my surname, but when my father-in-law saw my mail, his rage knew no bounds. The strife that followed was unending, and one of my sisters-in-law was called in to give me a “talk”. She told me that only actors double-barrelled their names. Cowed, I gave in.
I now understand that the psychological manipulation that followed was gaslighting: my in-laws began slowly eroding my confidence. A few months in, I was cooking all the meals and cleaning the house. It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced emotional abuse how words can destroy a person. A few more months in, my eldest sister-in-law sat me down for a formal talk. She said I was neglecting my duties and needed to start doing her parents’ washing and ironing. I had little say in the matter.
My husband’s role in all this was strange. I have no doubt that he loved me, that he wanted to spend time with me. We watched Ally McBeal every Thursday in our bedroom – the one time in the week we’d head upstairs before 9pm (all other evenings were spent with his parents) – and we spent weekend afternoons wandering aimlessly around London only to end up in Pizza Hut. We went on beautiful holidays and he bought me lavish gifts, as well as small thoughtful trinkets. I would go so far as to say he adored me. But there was another side to him, the side his parents would rile into a rage, and I would bear the brunt of it.
Once he left me sobbing on the bathroom floor because I wasn’t wearing the clothes his mother had picked out for me. We were on the way to a wedding and his parents didn’t approve of the blue silk Shalwar Kameez and pearl choker I had on. They had a word with him just before leaving, following which he raged and spewed venom at me. I remember dropping down the wall of the bathroom, unable to breathe, my foundation washing off into my hands. His sister came to get me and I had to clean myself up and go to the wedding, where he was suddenly apologetic and loving. Exhausted and empty, I accepted his apology.
His parents would wind him up like a clockwork toy with great regularity. It was usually just before we took a trip away, and I would spend the first couple of days “detoxing” him. I remember sitting by a pool in Morocco, watching helplessly as he sobbed. “They tell me I’m under my wife’s thumb,” he said. “But maybe I want to be!”
Their list of petty issues grew. I had not been raised properly, there was a dead fly on the steps I had failed to pick up, I had got my hair cut short without asking their permission, I’d met a friend in a coffee shop.
In the winter of 2000, I visited my parents for Eid. My husband rang and something in his tone told me all was not well. He said he wanted me to apologise to his youngest sister, the sister to whom I had given a Christian Dior compact before I left, the sister I had hugged, whom I treated as my own. But she needed an apology. She was upset about the way I had spoken to her in front of my cousin. I refused, telling him it was none of his business. He shouted. I refused again. Maybe it was because I was home, safe with my parents, or maybe I had taken all I could bear. Whatever it was, I was done.
And so I applied for khula, the Islamic form of divorce that is granted when a woman wishes to leave her husband. Seated in a small room in the mosque, my parents beside me, and my husband and his father in front, I asked for a divorce. “But I don’t want to give it,” my husband said to the qadi. There is a misconception that Islam does not allow a woman the right to divorce her husband. This lie is spread and made powerful by the halting of the education of girls and women by men, by cultural stigma, and by the mullahs who want to maintain power. But a woman who can read the Qur’an soon learns that her subjugation and oppression is a man-made construct.
“I don’t need your permission,” I said coldly. It was the first time I had felt such resolve.
“She’s right,” the Qazi said. “She doesn’t need your permission.”
“I don’t want to have anything more to do with these people,” I said, looking into my father-in-law’s eyes. A stunned expression spread across his face. He had assumed me to be weak, that a woman who was divorced once would be oppressed and beaten into submission, that I would do anything to avoid the shame again. They had taken my kindness for weakness. But I knew what it meant to be happy, and I knew I deserved better.
After my second divorce my father told my mother: “You will never stop my daughters doing what they want again.” After this, we stopped pandering to the community. Outwardly, I merged my eastern and western wardrobes, mixing kurtas with jeans and shawls. Inwardly, I stopped giving a damn about gossip. The worst had happened.
With my personal life dead, my professional life flourished. I was 27 when I landed a traineeship at my local paper. The paper gave me a job and sent me to journalism school. A few years later I was working for the BBC. My father was impossibly proud, recording every news item I was in and boring visitors half to death. When I moved into my own place, the mosque tongues wagged that I’d fallen out with my folks. They didn’t know it was my father who had found the cottage in Bradford, and arranged for me to see a mortgage broker. My father understood the importance of freedom.
It was a Saturday when my sister texted me to tell me Mum had given yet another guy my number. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” her text read. Several dead messengers were already strewn across the paths to my house and work, but this time I put down my gun. I took a deep breath and waited.
He texted on the Sunday night. He sounded normal when we talked, but he also wasn’t the guy Mum had given my number to. It turned out he had been given my number six months earlier by one of my aunts, but shortly afterwards his father had passed away. Going for a walk one cold October day, he’d found the little piece of paper in a coat he hadn’t worn since.
We gave each other the relationship résumé. “Serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard,” I said. He laughed loudly and unapologetically. Something clicked in my head and I relaxed. Two weeks later he came to meet me in Leeds. We ate lunch, walked, talked. He bought me three books: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Hamid Mohsin; What The Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell; and a book of love poems. I felt heard.
Over the following months, we continued talking every night, boarding trains between London and Bradford. And after much hard work on his part, I eventually agreed to marry him. Something told me if I said no, I would regret it. I had learned that, contrary to cultural expectations, good relationships are good from the start and not something you achieve through effort.
My husband isn’t religious, but he proved how much he wanted to marry me by visiting the mosque every day for two weeks to get our Nikah papers signed. The experience put him off future visits. “Saima Mir, BBC?” the imam said, on hearing who his intended was. “Are you sure you want to marry her?” And there it was. Despite my husband’s lack of belief, the fact he had no connection to the mosque, and his having previously married (and then divorced) someone of another sect, patriarchal culture considered him too good to marry me. My husband was furious. The imam turned a good man off Islam.
More than eight years on, I can tell you I made a wise choice. I am still married to a good and kind man. I am the mother of two young boys, and I feel the privilege and pressure of raising them as good Muslim men.
At some point they will read my story. I hope by then they will have a deep understanding of my faith. They will know that Islam gives a woman the right to choose her partner, and to leave him.
I will forever be the woman who left two husbands, and although writing this has been like standing naked in a room full of mirrors, it has been cathartic: I am proud of my fight. I dared break free of patriarchy. I refused to conform. I refused to give up my religion, and Islam backed me all the way.
I am an emancipated Muslim woman. There is no contradiction in this.