At the young age of 17, I married Khamis and his kindness during our courtship quickly transformed into control. After giving birth to our beautiful daughter, Khamis began to withhold food and water from me. Before long, he became a prison guard, keeping me trapped in the house.
EGYPT ꟷ Tears streamed down my cheeks as I ran out onto the streets of my village. He did it again; my husband mercilessly beat me, but this time, my mother-in-law rescued me from the abuse. I walked as fast as I could, afraid to lift my eyes from the ground. Shame burned inside me. I did not want the other villagers to see my face. Although I had no idea what I looked like, I presumed it was bad. I had become accustomed to dark-colored bruises appearing on my skin as pain seared through my body.
My own mother made matters worse. When I went to her for refuge, I faced something more painful than the physical torture I endured. She let out a barrage of blame and disappointment as she screamed at me. My very presence in her house upset her. I knew trying to bring my children there would be pointless. After all, she would just send them straight back to my husband. I resigned myself to the fact that this was a new kind of torture, which I simply needed to endure.
Growing up in a small village in northern Egypt, I listened to my mother singing while she baked bread in our primitive oven. Her melodic voice danced through the air, accompanied by the smell of the loaves cooking. Even in those beautiful moments, she made me starkly aware of our place in society. “Fresh bread is for the men,” she would say. “Spoiled bread is for me.”
Like most women in the village, she held an interesting belief system. “A woman is half man, and a girl is half boy,” she would tell me. This strange idea was rooted in the notion that daughters in our village generally inherited half of what the brothers received when their father passed away. The village saw young women as a commodity – contributing nothing to the family. Eventually, we married and moved into our husbands’ houses to serve him and his family.
The concept of returning to your family’s home without permission remained strictly forbidden. They discouraged visits because they believed it came with an expectation – that you needed help or wanted gifts.
As a teenager, I falsely believed my mother really loved me, but she simply wanted me gone. She hated hearing my brother and I argue, so she sacrificed me. Painting it as a grand love story, my mother encouraged me to leave school and marry a young man from our village. To give my brother peace and tranquility, she robbed me of a future.
At the young age of 17, I married Khamis and his kindness during our courtship quickly transformed into control. After giving birth to our beautiful daughter, my husband began to withhold food and water from me. Before long, he became a prison guard, keeping me trapped in the house. When we ventured out to the market, he refused to allow me to speak, and when disagreements arose, he unleashed his wrath.
Feeling my anger flare, I tried to leave but my mother rejected me. She became convinced I provoked him, so I turned to my older sister in Cairo for refuge. As luck would have it, when my sister was young, my father – who wanted a boy – gave her to my grandparents. She served as a source of entertainment for them, and she helped with housework and tended to the fields.
As a result, she gained a rare opportunity to attend university and to move to Cairo for work, where she met her future husband. When she opposed my teen marriage and urged me to focus on my education, I resisted her counsel. Instead, I listened to my mother’s promptings. Despite denying her advice, when I became desperate, my sister and her husband accepted my daughter and I into their lives. After a short time, she approached Khamis, demanding that he stop the abuse and apologize to me. He gave in and committed to changing his behavior, so I offered him a second chance.
I returned to my husband and to the village, filled with trust. Khamis promised he would no longer control me. When we welcomed our son into the world, joy overwhelmed me, but soon, Khamis reverted to his selfish ways. Yet, this time, things worsened. Khamis moved from control to abuse, and the outbursts turned violent. I devised a plan to return to Cairo, but the men in my family intervened before I could flee.
They gathered as a group to confront my husband, and Khamis promised in front of everyone he would never hit me again. Sadly, I knew his promises meant nothing. When he unleashed his final and most brutal assault upon me, I became resolute. I refused to gather with the men or village elders for meaningless talk. Instead, I fled straight to my sister’s house.
When I arrived, she and her husband took me straight to the hospital where doctors created a report of my injuries. Looking in the mirror, I saw my husband’s rage staring back at me. An intense black bruise circled my eye and in my memory, I saw the flash of his tightly-gripped fist wheeling toward me.
Intent on making me financially independent, my sister generously enrolled me in a knitting course. For two weeks, before going to class, I used concealer to cover my black eye. When I arrived, the instructor looked at me differently – not with pity but with empathy. She knew what I went through; she had suffered the same. Under her caring guidance, I soon fell in love with tailoring.
In the classroom, I finally felt safe and secure. I began to memorize the patterns for each garment our instructor presented, working tirelessly with different samples of fabric. I felt a new kind of joy as I grew in my craft, but it wouldn’t last forever.
My sister and her small family received approval for migration status and would soon move away. I considered renting a house alone with my children in the village, but the potential consequences far outweighed the benefits. A single mother living alone in the village signaled to society that you were available for prostitution. Yet, if I stayed in the city, my family could resort to heinous crimes like honor killings or imprisonment. I had no safe choice, so I reluctantly returned to my mother.
It took little time for my brother to begin bullying me. Hope faded from my life when my mother insisted the children return to their father. As the conflict unfolded, I faced yet another war waged against me. Every woman in the village perceived me as a threat. They feared my beauty and worried I might divorce my husband.
Men in our village could marry up to four women and a divorced woman was a cheaper commodity. They wouldn’t have to pay for a ceremony or expensive gold gifts. Soon, the suitors began to approach. At the same time, my husband engaged the village elders for help. He wanted to reconcile. My sister threatened to submit my medical records to the court unless he paid half his savings as a good-faith gesture. In a surprising turn of events, he paid the money, and she did not file the complaint.
While I feel appalled by the way our culture treats women, I had no choice but to stay; yet this time, I vowed to do things differently. I began working in the village, sewing clothes for women and children. Soon, an endless stream of women arrived at my door carrying fabric. I made clothes for them at a fair price, saving them money in the process.
Khamis soon changed his attitude. He began letting me out of the house to shop and interact with men. The mockery and belittlement I became accustomed to dwindled and the physical abuse stopped. When I no longer needed his money, words of love returned. His passion toward me exceeded that of our engagement many years before.
I watched a new kind of happiness radiate from our children’s faces as I showered them with food, clothing, and toys. Even my brother became kinder and more respectful, humbling himself as he asked me for help. My mother, on the other hand, remained bitter. “You should have never left my home,” she said. “You could have married someone better.” It became clear my mother viewed me now as the “golden hen,” and she missed out on her payday.
For a long time now, I have felt safe but the sting of regret returns when I consider my sister’s urging years before. “Go to school and get your education,” she advised. “You are the smartest among us. You could be doctor if you wanted to.” I did not listen. Yet, whether a doctor or a tailor, I feel grateful to be financially independent today.
When I walk through the streets of the village, I no longer look down. I hold my head high and observe the respectful or envious glances of those around me. I cling to a promise I made myself: I will not repeat the mistakes of my mother. My daughter will grow up strong. She will never marry young, and she will attend school. I cannot change all of society by myself; so this is how I create change for the next generation.
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