TORONTO — The story of Samra Zafar’s escape from an abusive arranged marriage made for a gripping magazine article in 2017, but it was far from the whole story.
Her account in Toronto Life soon led to a book deal, and Zafar embraced the opportunity to delve further into her saga of survival.
What she didn’t realize was how much more she had to learn about how that trauma continued to affect her life as an entrepreneur, human rights activist, public speaker, and mentor to other abused women.
Writing her memoir, “A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose” opened her eyes “to areas that I still didn’t heal from,” she says.
“One of the big ones was in terms of future relationships,” Zafar admits in a recent interview from Vancouver, where she was attending the Vancouver Writers Fest.
“I was just accepting partners that were not right for me. And I understood where that was coming from — that I still needed to work on my own self-acceptance and self-love and I was constantly thinking (about) that whole cultural conditioning that had been instilled into me, that I’m divorced now and have kids and am somehow damaged goods.”
The Toronto-based Zafar also questioned her perspective on her childhood in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, especially when it came to the volatile relationship between her parents.
While the article portrayed her father as a protector who inspired her to pursue an education and become self-sufficient, Zafar says she realized he had also undermined her in devastating ways.
“As I was writing the book, and especially going through those childhood memories of him assaulting my mother and abusing my mother, I realized that he was just as much an abuser as my ex-husband was,” Zafar says.
“A lot of the abuse that I tolerated in my marriage came because of what I saw as a child in my own family and I learned to normalize it. That came into perspective for me as well and all the cultural pieces that come into it.”
Zafar was just 16 when she learned her parents had agreed to marry her to a 27-year-old stranger in Canada. Her soon-to-be-in-laws promised they would support her dreams of university and a career, she writes.
She married months later and her husband began the paperwork to bring her halfway around the world. A year later, Zafar joined him in Mississauga, Ont., and barely a month after that, realized she had missed her period. She was just 18.
Soon afterwards she says her in-laws moved in and made it clear Zafar’s chief concerns were to be catering to their needs, as well as those of her husband and infant. She couldn’t leave the house, make new friends, earn her own money, or go to school.
Meanwhile, her husband grew alternately distant and violent as Zafar increasingly fell under her in-laws’ oppression, she writes in the memoir. The arrival of a second girl only further rooted Zafar’s sense of desolation.
Despite the abuse she suffered, Zafar says she didn’t want her ex-husband portrayed as “a villainous caricature.” She points to a complicated web behind their dysfunction, including patriarchy, cultural norms, and intergenerational biases.
“He was a human with flawed value systems and a flawed sense of upbringing and insecurities,” says the 36-year-old, whose daughters are now 17 and 12.
“I do have compassion for him and I do feel that there was a lot of good there, I just wish that he would have taken the responsibility to lean into that good and learn some of the things that were propagating that behaviour.”
With the family under financial duress, Zafar was allowed to get a job, learn to drive and start a home daycare business. She squirrelled away money so that when she announced she had been accepted at the University of Toronto and could pay her own way, there was nothing they could do to stop her.
From there, she excelled in school and found campus support groups who gave her the strength to leave her husband.
Zafar says her experience is far from unique.
“I did used to think, ‘Oh, this only happens in my culture,’ but … I was in a town about as white as it gets in Saskatchewan and I heard the same thing from women and survivors there: ‘My family will abandon me,’ ‘My church will abandon me,'” says Zafar, who recently joined BMO in a position helping women launch new business ventures.
Zafar has big plans for the year.
She’s in the process of acquiring charitable status for a mentorship program she founded called Brave Beginnings, created to help female survivors of violence rebuild their lives. She hopes to launch a pilot version later this year.
“There’s a lot of crisis support…. but once that is over and the woman is out of danger, out of crisis, now comes the hard part of really building a life from scratch when your confidence is low and you don’t really have a lot of life skills,” says Zafar.
“A lot of times that’s what they need — someone to believe in them and say: ‘You can do it.'”
“A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose” hit bookstores Tuesday.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press