Women Rights Are Human Rights

Samra Zafar – a highly acclaimed international speaker, TEDx presenter, an author and a notable scholar – talks about being a fighting spirit and how it has changed her life for good

  • 03 Mar - 09 Mar, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

The 16-year-old was doing her 10th grade maths homework, when her mother walked in and announced the news that changed Samra Zafar’s life forever. She had received a marriage proposal from a man, 11 years her senior, who worked at an IT company in Canada. Her fate sealed, a despondent Samra was made to bid farewell to schooling and told she would be allowed to pursue education ahead; a promise which was rendered unfulfilled.

Except the initial few months of her marriage, the decade long marital life held Samra a captive of emotional and physical abuse. Her voice was silenced. Her persona shunned. But her yearning for education never subsided. She rattled the shackles which were weighing her down from finding her voice again and seeking education, until she finally broke free. As a single, struggling mother, she graduated as a top student at the University of Toronto, receiving over a dozen awards and scholarships. Today she is a highly acclaimed international speaker, TEDx representer, an author, and a notable scholar. She is the youngest alumni serving as a Governor for the University of Toronto. Her story is a galvanising account of oppression to empowerment.

“I was born in Karachi and was a few months old when my parents moved to Abu Dhabi,” begins Samra. “I had big dreams of achieving the best education and making a difference in the world. I pulled straight A’s throughout school and my teachers encouraged me to apply to the best universities in the world,” she continues, recounting her life before marriage. “However, I was often told by the extended family and community that going abroad to pursue education would be too inappropriate, as my real purpose was to get married. It used to bother me but I never stopped dreaming.”

Her marriage ushered an onslaught of relentless emotional and physical abuse into her life.

How is that many women, who undergo abuse at various stages of life, only at a later juncture realise that they have been wronged, is my next query. “There are many factors that propagate the cycle of abuse,” she explains, adding, “Primarily being, unawareness, financial constraints, cultural norms, language barriers, and most importantly, lack of support. Human connection is essential to healing and succeeding, and many women stay in abusive situations due to fear of isolation from their family and community.”

When I question her about some of the early signs of abuse which begin to toe the lines of full-fledged abusive encounters, Samra cites excessive jealousy, unhealthy possessiveness, idealisation, humiliation, deflection of blame, and isolation as some of the reckoning warnings that a woman must not let slide.

“Ultimately, abuse is about someone’s need to feel powerful by controlling another person and their actions and affects people from all walks of life,” says Samra, explaining the denotations of the word abuse. “Physical abuse is just the tip of the ice-berg. Emotional or psychological abuse is insidious, constant and far more damaging to someone’s well-being and sense of self.”

Recently, Samra presented a TED talk titled The Culture of Honour, shining a light on how honour-based oppression keeps many women trapped in abuse and how this abusive cycle can be broken. Founding a non-profit organisation in Canada, based on a mentorship program, Samra Zafar is on the mission to help women build better lives after escaping violence. As a Governor of UoT she has aimed at creating an inclusive academic environment, especially for mature students, single mothers and women from minority communities. A book based on her story and work is being published by one of the most prominent Canadian publishers and will be out in international markets in the near future.

Talking about the turning points in her life, the successful mother of two says, “It was when I started university as a mature student after 10 years of marriage. I regained my confidence, which had been shattered due to years of abuse. Also, just the thought of my children who grew up witnessing their father abusing their mother, made me strong enough to sail through the hardships of life. I did not want them to become one of those who consider abuse normal nor did I want them to feel like victims. I could not let that happen.”

We belong to a society where divorce is considered worse than death. While it is terrible and should be avoided, in certain circumstances, it is inevitable. A woman chooses a life of torture rather than contemplating divorce.

Shedding light on this notion she says, “It all boils down to this sense of misplaced honour, which is tied to a woman’s persona and marital status,” Samra comments on why divorce is so feared. “It is the deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny that ties a woman’s worth to her predefined role of a subservient, inferior being. Freedom of thought is denied, and women who speak up are shamed and blamed as being home-wreckers.”

Samra delineates the time she was subjected to endless shame from her family over ending her marriage. She vividly recounts the day her brother-in-law told her, ‘What’s the point of you winning all these scholarships and awards if you failed at the real purpose of a woman? Shame on you.’

Thousands of women write to Samra expressing their fears of ending abusive marriages leading to rejection from society. Women want to feel belonged, wanted and respected, feelings that, according to them, come from a successful marriage – and it’s no surprise that many women stay in horrible circumstances because they don’t want to be rejected.

“First of all, it is important to realise, ‘it’s NOT your fault’,” stresses Samra, telling women to acknowledge the fact that they deserve better in life and from life. “Things do not change overnight, but any big change is a culmination of small, simple steps. It starts with breaking the silence. More and more women need to speak up, but the role of men is also crucial to challenge these stereotypes and norms. Instead of men vs. women, we need to work as men & women vs. the problem.”

Addressing women on this International Women’s Day, Samra says, “The power to change your life lies within you. Opportunity comes by choice, not by chance. It might be tempting to give in and give up. Always remember to speak up, give back and pay it forward because you will be carving a path not just for yourself, but also for others.”

Samra remembers one of her articles that went viral and was republished in many countries. A month later, she received a note from a father in Pakistan that read: “I have a 17-year-old daughter who was getting married next month. After reading your story, I have decided to cancel her wedding and send her to university.”

“I do whatever I can to give back, because I know that my story is not just mine – it is the story of millions of other women who suffer in silence.”