Zubia: “When you know who you are, no one can hurt you”
Every life has a turning point. One moment, one occurrence, that shapes a person, defines the life that will come after. Some break- most expand. They become wiser, humbler, stronger. Our Real Life Heroes are people who went through experiences that shaped them. They trust us with their stories and inspire others to make it through rough times.
Lacuna: Tell us about your cultural and religious upbringing and how it affected your life?
Zubia: I have been brought up religious- Islamic. Of all my siblings, I was brought up stricter, because I was the eldest, and my parents thought, if they are stricter to the eldest, then the other siblings will fall in line.
I was not allowed to wear revealing clothes, and until I was 15 years old my parents chose my clothes. I had long shirts, like a proper tomboy. That really knocked my self-confidence, because all the other girls dressed up for school. They thought I was poor and could not effort such clothing, but that was not the case.
When I was in year three, I tried wearing a headscarf, because I liked it. On the school playground, the kids were laughing at me. I realized it is not something that in this society is seen as beautiful as I thought it to be.
I wanted to belong. But I always felt this lack of belonging, because I was different. I was brought up in one country, but I had two cultures clashing.
Lacuna: Which culture do you feel you most belong?
Zubia: I don´t necessarily belong to any of these two cultures. I would say, I understand both cultures and I see the disadvantages and advantages of both cultures, so I am somewhere in the middle. I take the best parts of both cultures. The freedom, the freedom of speech and how we can dress and express ourselves, I take from Western society. This humility and humbleness and wisdom and spirituality, I take from the Eastern society. I take both and combine them, and this is who I am.
Lacuna: That is really interesting. Many people feel torn apart but you include different things.
Zubia: In a way, I am also thankful my parents dressed me like a tomboy, because of that I could see that people treat me differently because of the way I dress. I told myself I will never treat someone differently for the way they look. This was a major lesson for me. Why do people treat me differently for the way I dress, the way I look, for what I have? Even if they did it for other reasons, it was my way to learn from it.
Lacuna: When you got older, you must have felt trapped somewhere in this life, because you married pretty young.
Zubia: Yes. It was the case that I had a lack of freedom. I wanted more freedom. My parents gave me a certain freedom, I was allowed to go outside and they were not really strict. In fact, they were quite modern. Still, I didn´t have enough freedom to live my life the way I wanted to. I wanted to be able to wear anything I want. Dresses. Skirts. I wanted to escape from my family´s house.
Then I saw this guy. He was a cousin. They approached my family and asked for my hand. I also liked him but at this point, I liked any good looking guy. I was fourteen.
Then I heard that my father asked on the phone if these relatives had received the boxes. They had agreed to the proposal. I asked my mom if this was true, but I pretended to be a little bit shocked. I wanted to get my freedom that way. I was never allowed to have a boyfriend, so this was the first time. This guy promised me I would get all my freedom, and when I am with him, I can wear anything I want. I can live my life the way I want. We can go out. But obviously, this was not the case.
In the end, I didn´t want to marry him anymore, because we had so many arguments and there was a little voice in me saying: I don´t want to marry him. I called my mom; she was in Pakistan at that time, wedding shopping. I told her, “Mama, I don´t want to marry him.” But she said it was too late. I don´t blame her, because I often had said that, and maybe she thought it was another argument.
I was so confused during that time. I take full responsibility for my decisions now. But at that time, I could not.
Lacuna: You were really young…
Zubia: Yes, I was really young.
Lacuna: So you married at 17.
Zubia: I was almost 18.
Lacuna: How were your married life and your situation then?
Zubia: It was actual hell.
In our culture, it is a tradition that during the first wedding night, we have to have sexual intercourse. This did not happen because I was so scared. I was still a virgin. The second day he was messaging his best friend. They talked about a girl and he used very rude words when asking his best friend if he has had sex with that girl. I was so shocked and questioned him because I had read it since he wrote it the moment I came into the room. And he said, “What do you want, bitch?” In a reflex and thinking, “If I don´t stop him now, he will always call me these names,” I slapped him once. He was so shocked, took me, and pushed me to the wall. I fell down, and he slapped me in my face and left the room. I just cried. I was the one who started the violence, and because of this, he accused me, he had lost it and he said he would have never ever have done this otherwise. And I believed this for a long long time. I believed that because of me, he had lost his control over his hand and now he is beating me for anything.
He asked me things like, “Why did you not vacuum for a second time? I see a bit of dust here,” or “Why did you not put that box in the bin?”
He told me he would count to three and, “If you don´t tell me why you have forgotten to put this box in the bin, I will hurt you.”
And he counted to three. He said, “One… two… “, and then he said, “Don’t show me tears, don´t show me you´re scared. If you do this, I will get angrier and I will beat you even harder.”
When he counted he told me not to show emotions like anger and fear. And then he came closer and closer and by three he was so close he could hit me.
The first few times I tried to figure out good explanations why I have forgotten to put the box there or to vacuum two times. Then I realized that he would hit me anyway. And he hit me in a way with his flat hand so that I would not get scars. He hit me with his flat hand, but he hit me like a punch. I got knocked to the ground, and I saw black in front of my eyes and little electricity.
Then I thought this is maybe because we don´t have sexual intercourse. We tried, but I was always scared and then he just beat me up. That was the first eight months. He beat me also while we were trying to have sexual intercourse, because he was so frustrated that I was scared. But because he hit me, I was getting even more scared.
After eight months, he took my arms and put them into a scarf so that I could not move them. Then he tried to rape me and then he hit me a lot and he said, “Put that candle into you and practice now.” I could not do it and he hit me. The next night he raped me and it hurt but he just pushed it. I was just relieved that it was over. But he said we would have to do it every day now to stretch me so that it didn´t hurt again. It hurt every time. Even if he raped me two times in a day, it hurt and he was often beating me up. He also said to me, “You have to pretend you like it and you don´t show me tears.” I was in pain but I was more scared of the pain he would cause me afterward if we do not do it so I pretend I liked it. I was in a fight and flight position, but I could not do either.
When he was gone during the day, I was sitting at the window, watched other people, watched the landscape and then I thought, “I am like these women who stand here and look out of the window. I have nothing else to do. This is my life now? I can’t live like this anymore.”
Lacuna: Did you talk to your parents about your situation?
Zubia: In Islam, it is “haram,” which means it is a sin to talk about the flaws of your husband to your friends or family members. He and his mother brainwashed me to believe this. So I kept quiet for a long time.
I called the police once, and he got a restraining order. I was fully swollen- my whole body was swollen. They asked me if I have any kind of swelling and scars but I said I did not. It was a mistake. I was in so much shock I didn´t even think about these things. Then his mother came and she brought me to the train station and told me to go to my parent’s house and learn something.
My father was really reluctant; he didn’t want me to go backno matter what. I wish he would have been stricter at that time. Then my husband called me and he cried and that broke me. He said, “You´re so nice, I am so sorry, I don´t know why I did this. I didn´t appreciate you, come back.”
I went back. It was my biggest mistake. He prepared a letter, a confession letter, on my behalf and it said, that I am a really jealous person, and I called the police because he wanted to leave me. I signed it because I had to live with him. I didn´t think he might have only called me because of this. Then we went to Denmark to his brother’s place.
I went to the beach, and I wanted to write poetry or draw something and he called me. I didn’t hear it but he thought I had heard. I got lost somewhere, and it took me four hours to come back and I didn’t have a phone because he didn´t buy me one. When I came back, he was so angry and his brother wasn’t there and he beat me up and he took a metal stick and wanted to hurt me with that. He hurt my legs, and he wanted to hurt me even more. Luckily his brother came at that moment and asked what he was doing and my ex-husband went away.
Lacuna: How did you get out?
Zubia: We were together for 2 ½ years. When my son was born, he slapped me in the hospital. I had an emergency c-section and I was in so much pain already. I was in a wheelchair. He told me to get up. Then he said he will slap me because I was in a bad mood and I saw my son in his bed and I thought, “He even slaps me after I give him a child.” He said, “Don´t even think you gave me this child. I gave this child to you.”
That was not even the breaking point, but something in me cracked.
When we were at home he made me exercise. I had to run nonstop for half an hour while pushing the baby stroller. Then I had to climb up and down the 12 floors six times and then do some sit-ups. I had to do it every day. I lost weight very quickly, too quickly to recover. Then he started to hit me again.
He once said to me, “Don´t give my son your dirty milk because you are a witch.” I was breastfeeding. “Give him fennel tea.” But he never drank fennel tea from a bottle. So my son cried and my ex-husband let him cry for hours. “Give him your dirty milk but then take him away from you,” he said then. I cried quietly while breastfeeding.
Then the next day he beat me up at the night and sent me to the shower. He always did this, but this time he moved the shower curtain and he humiliated me. I was trying to control my tears. He said, “This is you!”
Then something broke in me. I had thought he would change when he had a child. Everyone said to me that he would change. I gave him a child and he was still treating me like shit. The last acceptance and tolerance I had for him were gone.
I called his best friend´s wife and told her what happened. She advised me. “If you leave, if you dishonor your family, can you nurture and raise your child alone? Only if you can say yes, you can leave him.” I took a while to think about it. I was so emotionally distant, that I could finally see through the game he and his mother were playing, how they were manipulating me. I took my documents and left.
I went to a friend, then to a women´s hostel. He found the number and called. I hadn´t told anyone. He called my mother, who lived in London and he cried and told her I had taken his son. My mother was in so much fear for me. She didn´t know what had happened. I should have told her, but I wanted to do it all by myself. I didn´t want anyone to worry.
There is a gap.
Eventually, my father picked me up and we went to another place for women. This was one of my nicest times. I wanted to become independent, but then I ended up living with my father for three years. But I needed my own space. I looked for a flat, but my ex-husband stalked me and he had these contact sessions with my son. During the first unsupervised contact session, he hurt me again. He twisted my wrist. Then I knew I could not live near him. It was not to take my son from him, but it was to survive. The religious marriage was separated and state marriage never happened anyway. I have full custody of my son, but he is allowed to see him. How can a system make you see your rapist?
Lacuna: Most people would have been broken, but you sound very strong.
Zubia: I may sound strong, but I have many intrusive thoughts, insecurities, anxiety and depressive episodes. I also have flashbacks.
If this would have not happened, I would have not all this shit now. I am not grateful for the experiences, because I have seen so much evil. What I am grateful for is that I have a son.
But because of the scars on my body, I know that only a person who really loves me will accept me. I had insecurities about my scars and stretch marks, but now I feel grateful for them in a way.
I learned a lot about myself through that, and I did not see the potential before that. Now I speak up for myself and for injustices in the world.
I am not afraid to get judged. I don´t give a fuck if someone judges me because I have taken so much shit already. You can judge me all you want, and I do not care. I know who I am.
Lacuna: You do activism.
Zubia: When I came to London, I did a lot of political activism and had a YouTube channel with 10,000 subscribers. I protested for student fees. I was vegetarian, but I did not know how to eat properly. I did feel the pain of the world, but I did not do my research.
Lacuna: With all you have learned, the gift you have, your creativity, how do you want to spend the rest of your life?
Zubia: This is a good question, because I have thought about this for the last four years. I am looking for a purpose in my life. People will say, I am a mom that is my purpose, but I think: when he is 18 or 20, and married, what is my purpose then?
I want to help people. I want to mentor them. Mentors are needed in a lot of different fields.
When you walk alone on the street and you love yourself enough you would a) not go alone and b) you would have done a self-defense course. You would be fully prepared for a situation when somebody approaches you. Sometimes something happens you can´t control but there are a lot of things you can control. Rape rarely happens as we think it does. Someone jumping out of nowhere to rape you… Rape happens often when you know the person. I believe that every woman and every child should do self-defense or martial arts.
I have an Instagram account to empower women. I don’t wear makeup, and I show them they don´t have to wear makeup. I don´t have a filter on my pictures to give them confidence. Also, my clothes are not designer clothes. On Instagram, there are all these designer and makeup and filters, but all these things are fake. So I help women to get confident. Because when you have confidence and know who you are, no one can hurt you. If you really know your own worth then no one can hurt you. That is my message.