After a disastrous arranged marriage, a southern Iraqi woman defies her family and finds eventual happiness with her two sons and the love of her life.
As an Arab woman from a culturally strict and religious family, being brought up in London always created problems for me. I made friends with non-Muslims and adapted more to their culture than the one I was born into. My family disagreed with my way of life as it did not comply with their beliefs and upbringing. But we lived in a predominantly Muslim area of East London, which had a lot of influence on both me and my attitude.
I was constantly in trouble at home and at school for being ill-mannered and not behaving according to my family’s expectation. I wasn’t looking for a cultural clash, I just found it difficult to balance the two together. However, my father has always been supportive of me and my siblings when it came to education. He would encourage us to become strong independent Muslims and would do his absolutely utmost to ensure we achieved the best grades. Off course, he never had the same mentality as me, so it remained hard for him to understand my outlook on life.
When I was at university he found me a husband. He refused to discuss anything with me. It was all very fast and secretive. But I didn’t question it as he was my elder who knew what was best for me. Although I was very English orientated, I just could not let my father down. I accepted the marriage and hoped for the best. It was all very traditional. I met the young man for about half an hour in the presence of my parents. In our culture the bride must not speak to or see her groom or have any sort of contact with him until the Nikah (engagement to marry) is done. I just followed the rules of course, to respect my faith and most importantly my parents.
After a few months, we had our Nikah. I started communicating with my husband-to-be to get to know him better. At that point my life had become a misery at home. Everything was being questioned, family politics had started and stress from university and friends was taking its toll on me. I decided the best thing to do was to hurry the wedding up in order to be liberated from my family.
Six months later, I had a very small wedding and I moved into my marital home with my beloved groom. Our marriage was blossoming. We had ups and downs but the relationship was beautiful. I was full of energy. Entering the second year of my law degree, I had all the determination in the world to study hard and graduate and start a career. Life seemed colorful to me, and everything was possible…
But it didn’t last. Because of my husband’s immigration status, he couldn’t work. Meanwhile I was burdened with bills, rent, and an unemployed husband who did nothing but complain about his rejected claim for asylum. All of a sudden I was just another housewife. A married woman responsible for too much – far beyond my capability. In the midst of all this, I fell pregnant.
For months, I went from solicitor to solicitor. From charitable trusts to citizens’ advice bureaux to fight for my husband’s case. Finally, after a long and hard struggle he was finally granted a four-year visa.
With this over, my husband can finally work and start helping me pay off those bills, I thought. But no. Two years passed and nothing had changed. My husband had never worked a day in his life. At this point I was pregnant with my second child. We relied heavily on my family even for the most basic necessities. This included food, drink, travel everything. He loved it. I mean who wouldn’t? Getting everything you wanted without working for it – perfect.
Every time I brought up the topic of work, he would snap and cause a fight. I was exhausted, I couldn’t live like this anymore. I hated everything about him. I hated my life and my parents who had put me in this situation. I was felt powerless. This was all for culture, marrying someone I knew nothing about. I questioned my life many times but for the sake of my boys I kept going on. I graduated but couldn’t do much; money was always an issue, child care and other factors stood in my way. I had so much potential, how on earth did I end up in such a miserable marriage living on benefits and struggling to make ends meet?
It wasn’t until our sixth year of marriage that my husband found a job. Things started to look good, but that was short-lived. He started acting funny; telling me to move out from the bedroom and sleep with the kids. His work shifts were becoming murky. He would work funny hours and lie about the days he worked on.
We started to drift away from each other. We hardly spoke. This went on for eight months until one day he came clean. He told me he no longer wanted the marriage to continue and he wanted a divorce. “Why”? I asked him. He simply said “I found someone else”. Deep down I was over the moon. I was ecstatic that I was finally getting out of this mess.
However, the damage was done. My culture had wounded me deeply. And when I admitted what was happening, my family, rather than giving me the support I needed, blamed me for the breakdown of the marriage, and put pressure on me to repair it. All these accusations and blames were being thrown at me. How oblivious can they be? This was their fault. They put me in this hurtful situation. I was blamed for being me, for being the young woman who did everything to honour her parents. For being the obedient wife that lost her dignity for the sake of her boys. For being the servant to traditional culture. This rude, disrespectful woman had destroyed her own marriage – that’s all I heard.
The constant taunting, the stares and the treatment I was getting, were unbearable. I decided to abandon everything and stand up for myself and what I believed in. Let’s all take off the mask and start showing our true colours; my true colours, who I really was.
I stood my ground and fought for divorce. It was then that I started to use whatever I could against anyone who crossed me. I even threatened to get police involved if anyone tried to hurt me or my boys. My family were shocked. Is this poor, defenseless woman really fighting back? Yes, I was! This was just the beginning. If I learned anything from my law degree, it was probably learning to fight back. I wanted to make a change and fight for what was rightfully mine and in this case it was a life: I wanted my life back.
I was disowned for three years for divorcing my husband. Eventually, my parents came to terms with it all. But I was supposed to accept re-integration on their terms. They made my life a nightmare. They were interfering with everything. I wasn’t allowed out; I wasn’t allowed to socialise or communicate with anyone. I had no life. I was still financially struggling with bills and trying to feed my children. My parents were happy. They had me just were they wanted. They controlled me but I had no one. All my friends had moved on and started their own lives – but not me.
It had never crossed my mind that I could marry someone from a different culture. It was forbidden amongst southern Iraqis. As I grew up I always wanted someone who would understand my language, my background and my way of life. I always assumed that only an Arab like myself could do that.
But now I wanted an open-minded Muslim, someone who was born and bred in the UK, who totally dismissed the cultural norms. Someone who was positive and upbeat about living life. We could visit shrines, travel the world and learn more about Islam in a more practical way. A partner who would accept my two boys, who would father them and replace their absent dad. A man my kids would love and look up to, who would get along with my family and everything.
But the beautiful hunky-dory life was just too good to ever be true. In fact, it was impossible. I will never find an Arab that would accept my kids because it was so rare and I just wasn’t a lucky girl. That’s the way I assumed it would stay.
Being a single mum was depressing, not because I couldn’t handle being single but because I couldn’t handle the family pressure. To them I was a divorcee. I had already brought shame to them once and I was capable of doing it again. Well guess what, shame and dishonor was definitely guaranteed. I wanted to move on and start a new life. But off course, that was just a no-go in my culture. I had to live and die for my boys. I got married once and although it was a forced marriage, I wasn’t allowed to remarry.
My life belonged to my boys and I should focus on them only, they kept telling me. It was sad really, if I wasn’t happy how was I supposed to give my kids happiness? I was still barely allowed out, my parents kept trying to run everything in my life. Then, surprisingly, one night they gave me the permission to attend my friend’s birthday party. I had known her for over 20 years but not once had I met her family. On that night I was introduced to her brother. We instantly clicked. I felt that I had known him for years. We exchanged glances and smiles all evening. I felt that he was the one, the soul mate that I had been searching for. He was a Muslim convert who knew little about Islam but I didn’t care. He was blonde and he had the English culture. Although we were completely different to one another, we got on very well.
We started chatting over the phone and on our first date he proposed. Yes, my English man had proposed on the first date. It was romantic and it just seemed right. I had already been through so much and I had nothing to lose so I accepted instantly. Five months later, we tied the knot. We went to a mosque, exchanged our vows and married. I loved it. It was all very fast and spontaneous. I was thrilled. For the first time in my life I felt free. I didn’t care about culture or family or anything, I wanted true happiness for my boys and for myself. We had so much similarities and everything worked out. I forgot all the barriers and the obstacles I had faced.
Who said it was hard to marry into a different culture? In fact it was amazing. It was euphoria. My husband truly loved my boys and vice versa. I could see my children beaming with happiness, something I hadn’t seen in a while. My dream had come true. I had the best three men and I was content.
Sadly, neither of our families really accepted us. My family disowned me again but I became so numb that it didn’t really bother me. I was targeted with endless abuse, but that wasn’t important. It was trivial, I had my small family unit to worry about. We moved in with his mother so I could get closer to her but that backfired. It was disastrous. My mother in law was very old fashioned and everything was unacceptable. I never retaliated even when she complained about my foreign muck cooking. Seven months later, I decided to move back to my old flat. I worked long stressful shifts and coming home to negativity was intolerable. I knew I was being selfish but if my husband really loved me, he would move in with me and he did.
I was very hesitant to make that decision but why, after all I had been through, struggle some more? I moved back home, re-decorated my flat and started my life with my husband and my boys. I couldn’t be happier. It was the best decision I ever made. We found comfort in each other and love and respect that keeps growing today. Where there is love, everything is possible and as long as we treat each other with tenderness and care nothing will ever bring us down. No race or culture race stop us from love and being who we are.
The woman in this story has chosen to remain anonymous. She was speaking to Schahrazade Halfaoui.