Sara* is a lawyer representing abuse and sexual violence survivors. She had been in a violent relationship for over a decade, but had never lodged a complaint against her husband, a respected professor and head of the teaching staff.
By telling her story, she wants to show others in similar situations that there is hope. “If I am able to leave a 13 year-long abusive relationship and start over again, anyone can do it”, says Sara.
In the first 5 years of her marriage there was no physical abuse from her husband. The violence started after she started to earn more money than him. He began with verbal abuse and took full control over her finances.
She was required to buy him expensive clothing, and a weekend home in the countryside. She was not allowed to spend on herself or her daughter. He took her money as his own and tried to control every aspect of her life. Then it escalated to violence, where he would frequently beat her.
Sara found that the higher her husband climbed on the career ladder, the more obedience and perfection he demanded of his wife and daughter.
“I didn’t feel free and safe enough to talk about the abuse,” Sara explains. “I felt threatened, I had no sense of security. There are many women that are abused in Iraq. Little to no attention is paid to what women are going through. Nothing happens to the abusers. Many women die of domestic violence every year, but no one cares”.
That is why Sara started to share her story, hoping to raise awareness of domestic violence.
“Every time he hit me I told myself that this would be the last time, but fear always held me back. Fear of society’s judgement, fear of retaliation, fear of death and most importantly I had a daughter that I had to think of, it gave me reasons to stay, until I had no choice but to run.”
Sara never talked to friends or family about the abuse she went through, so when she left her husband she found it difficult to answer their questions.
“How do I tell my family and friends that he used to hit us in places that no one could see? That he would be meticulous in covering any signs of abuse. That if you lifted up my jumpers or dresses, my stomach and legs would be covered with black and blue bruises. He would pull my hair and kick me in the stomach.
“When I went behind his back and opened up a separate bank account, his violence escalated to hitting me in the face. This meant that I was unable to work and contribute financially. There were times that he taunted me and would say that no one would believe me over him. That he was a respected professor and that there was nothing I could say or do. That destroyed me more than anything else.
“I knew I couldn’t prove anything. He knew that too. I never told anyone what it was like at home. I knew it would only get worse. There were two options in my mind: everything would get better and I would stay, or I would have to leave. In the latter case, I had to be prepared to save up some money, and to get proof. I knew I wouldn’t be believed.
“I decided to reach out to Islamic Relief as I knew that they helped people in need, and started to resist more at home. As a result, the violence increased, towards me and also towards my daughter. The [incident that finally made me] leave was something small. But it made me determined to get my daughter out alive.
“I felt so isolated from everyone and was physically and mentally at a low point in my life. Then I received support from Islamic Relief, who welcomed me into their women’s safe space, where women who have experienced gender-based violence are given counselling. It was nice to confide in someone, to tell the truth. I started taking recreational courses and building my confidence to tell my family that my husband had been abusing his daughter and me.
“I sat my family down and explained what has been happening for more than a decade, and that leaving my marriage meant that I was saving my daughter from being motherless. They didn’t know it was that bad. They were angry that I kept it to myself for so long. But I didn’t know how to share my story with them. I was ashamed for so long. I kept asking myself how I got here, I was an educated woman with a university degree and a career. How did this happen to me?
“I have learned that most women tend to blame themselves and hold themselves more accountable then they do others. Through the counselling I learned that I am stronger than I think and I am not to blame for his behaviour.
“I was able to go back to work. I pay my own bills. I now live in my own house with my daughter. We walk in the woods. I am slowly rebuilding my circle of friends and family. I feel guilty all the time, especially about my children and family. That will never pass. I’ll feel I have to make it up to them for the rest of my life.
“I used to be constantly scared. Afraid he would find me. Afraid I might lose my job. Afraid he would hurt me or my child. He threatened that one day the police would be at my door. He did everything he could to make sure I lost my job. The fear is not gone, but it is less present now.”
Sara says that trauma therapy and sharing her story with other women helps her come to terms with her experiences.
“Sharing each other’s stories helps, because you learn from each other and can deal with your own problems a bit better. We all go through things and it is better to talk about it than bottle everything up.
“In Iraq women don’t talk about their abuse, which results in more violence. But it has to stop, and more women need to come forward with their stories to show that we are facing a silent killer in domestic violence. I have made it my goal to show that it can happen to anyone and to help those that are suffering through domestic abuse. I use my position as a lawyer to help survivors, as I am a survivor myself. I want to make other women feel worthy to fight for themselves.
“I have a long way to go to rebuild myself back to the person I was before the abuse, but teaching women that there is a way out is my mission at the moment. Knowing that I am making a difference makes me proud of what I have overcome.”
Islamic Relief works to improve gender justice through our programmes, policy and advocacy work. As well as empowering vulnerable women and girls through raising awareness around gender-based violence, Islamic Relief also offers life-changing counselling. We run workshops offering faith-based perspectives on child protection and gender-based violence, equipping women to bring about lasting positive change in their own lives and communities
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*Name changed for protection purposes