The Good Wife

Samra Zafar
Thursday, August 3, 2017 - 9:37am
Samra Zafar
UTM alumna Samra Zafar was 16 when she was forced to marry a stranger and move from the United Arab Emirates to Canada. Over the next decade, she was isolated, humiliated and assaulted. The whole time, she was planning her escape.

Excerpted from the March 2017 issue of Toronto Life.

In August 2005, we moved into a new apartment.

At first, he was kind again. But within a few months, I got pregnant with our second daughter, and the abuse resumed. I needed an escape plan, so I began tutoring and babysitting children in our apartment building, slowly saving money for five months until I had enough for my daughter and me to fly to Karachi, where my sister was getting married. This time I wasn’t coming back.

My father had been diagnosed with kidney failure before I’d arrived in December, and over the next few months I watched helplessly as his condition deteriorated. One day, I sat with him in the ICU. “Papa, if something happens to you, what am I going to do?” I asked him. “Realize the strength you have inside of you,” he told me. “Go back to Canada and find a way to get out of your marriage.” He died two days later. My husband arrived in Karachi that week for the funeral. Sex was the first thing he wanted. It wasn’t until he’d finished that he asked me how I was feeling. I said I was fine, got up and walked to the bathroom. I turned on the shower so he wouldn’t hear me cry. Resigned and defeated, I went back with him. While I’d been away, he’d moved back into his parents’ house. This time I got a small room in the basement, with bare walls and a little window in the corner. My daughter slept in her crib in the room next door. In June 2006, I gave birth to my second daughter. I was miserable.

And yet my father’s words had ignited something in me. I knew I was smart, and I knew the only way out was through school. I studied in my room every night, finishing the last course I needed for my GED, a Grade 13 economics credit. A few months after my younger daughter was born, I earned my diploma, and decided to apply to university again.

In 2008, I applied to U of T’s economics program. I was accepted. Nothing was going to stop me from going. My first day of school in September 2008 was one of the best of my life. I got to school 15 minutes before my class started and walked through the Kaneff Centre at U of T Mississauga. After everything I’d been through, I’d finally achieved my dream. I sat in the hall, tears running down my cheeks. If only my father could have seen this, I thought to myself.

I thrived in my new environment. I aced every class, and other students gravitated toward me, asking to study or socialize. My success changed my thinking. I could feel vestiges of confidence I hadn’t had in years. One day in October I was walking to the campus bookstore to buy textbooks. Just around the corner, outside the health and counselling centre, a flyer on a bulletin board caught my eye. On it was a list of questions. “Do you feel intimidated? Do you feel like you don’t have a voice? Do you feel like you’ve lost your identity?” As my eyes ran quickly down the list, my brain screamed over and over again: yes, yes, yes. “Come in and make an appointment,” the poster read. I opened the door and walked inside.

A few days later, I sat across from a counsellor, describing what was going on at home. She grabbed my hand. “It’s not your fault,” she said. It was the first time anyone had said that to me. As I continued my counselling, I realized that what had happened to me was wrong. My agency had been stripped away. I learned about the cycle of abuse that characterizes so many unhealthy relationships.

Our marriage was becoming more toxic every day. He once bought me a cellphone as a present, but installed spyware on it so he could monitor my calls. He kicked me in the stomach. He kept threatening to kill me. A year after I started counselling, I told him I wanted a divorce. “What are you talking about?” he asked me. “I love you. I can’t live without you.”

One January night in 2011, he picked a fight. I wasn’t doing enough housework, he said. As he loomed over me, tightening his fist, I picked up my phone. “If you touch me, I’m going to call 911,” I shouted. And then he spat out the word divorce, in Urdu, three times: talaq, talaq, talaq. According to some Islamic scholars, uttering those words means the marriage is over.

I thought I’d be thrilled when he left, but I was terrified. He sold our house out from under me, leaving me and the kids with three weeks to pack up. We had nowhere to go. I even registered at a couple of shelters, expecting to be homeless. One day, I was at the U of T tuition office, and a woman overheard me lamenting my situation. She suggested I look into campus housing; luckily, the university had one family unit left. Two days later, I had the keys to my very own three-bedroom townhouse.

That year, I juggled five jobs to stay afloat. Education was my only refuge from my dark thoughts. I focused all my energy on school. In my fourth year, I was promoted to head TA.
I worked as a senior mentor for the school’s first-year transition program. I carried an eight-course load and earned a 3.99 GPA. I was awarded the university’s highest honour, the John H. Moss Scholarship, a $16,000 award that’s given to an outstanding student who intends to pursue graduate work.

In September of that year, I started my master’s in economics. By the time I graduated, I was surviving off OSAP, and my debt load was piling up. I wanted to stop borrowing money as soon as possible, so I decided not to pursue a PhD. Instead, I accepted a job at the Royal Bank of Canada, where I work today as a commercial account manager.

For the past three years, I’ve lived in a three-bedroom condo in Mississauga with my daughters, who are now 15 and 10. I serve as an alumni governor at the University of Toronto, and I speak about my experience for organizations like Amnesty International. I’m happier than I ever imagined I could be. I want women to know that they deserve a life of respect, dignity and freedom—that it’s never too late to speak up.