A refugee from Afghanistan who resettled in Canada as a child, Arzo Ansary endured violence against women in her own family – first watching her mother suffer and then her own ordeal. Today she a support worker for individuals with an acquired brain injury, as well as an entrepreneur who co-founded the new small business YumYum Blueberries.
I was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, a place where Afghanis escaping the Soviet War sought to build themselves a home. My mother became a nurse in that camp. She spoke many languages and quickly learned English from the UN’s program staff stationed there. My mother made friends with the program director and was eventually sponsored to Canada with three kids, another on the way, and her husband. After a few months, her brothers followed her.
It was a cold day when we arrived in Canada. I will never forget how gray everything looked through the eyes of my six-year-old self. Unlike in the refugee camp, there weren’t homes made of mud or brick or mounds of garbage everywhere. Everything was so different from home – except for the anger.
My dad yelled at my mom over something, and before I knew what was happening, he was beating her. Her ear bled as he pulled an earring while he tried to shove her head to the ground. After things calmed down, my mom insisted to my father that what he had done could never happen again. They were in North America now, and nobody was around to pat my dad on the back for his abuse towards her. My mom swore to call the police the next time he laid a finger on her. And for a long time, he didn’t.
My mom was sharp. She obtained a driver’s license and purchased a vehicle. She went to school and completed her BSc in Nursing while working full-time and maintaining a household with four children. Her husband was an uneducated former chef. It was an arranged marriage. My mom begged her family to let her finish her education. Her pleas fell on empty ears. She was a woman and must therefore bear children.
When I was 12 years old, my dad finally had enough. In a split second, he forgot he was in Canada. He forgot he was a father and a husband. He forgot his humanity. He pulled out a knife and stabbed his wife to death.
He had been emasculated long enough. She was always working, she was always studying, she was too busy being the man of the house to properly take care of her husband’s needs. She was an unclean woman who worked alongside men and had conversations with males not related to her. She was a disgrace, and her failure to be the ideal submissive housewife led to dishonor for my dad. She was murdered for her drive to thrive.
My mother used to tell me I could be anything I wanted. I just had to study. I had to read books and let my imagination soar. Everything changed after she was murdered. Her brother, who had followed us to Canada, took guardianship of my siblings and me.
My uncle was a tyrant. He ruled over the household with an iron fist. If someone spilled a glass of water in the house by accident, we knew there would be a beating that night. He made me start to wear a headscarf and go to a private religious school. My conversations with friends were monitored, as were any interactions with the outside world. He didn’t want me to breathe a word of the abuse taking place in our household. We were rarely fed well enough or clothed properly. No one was allowed to ask about where the money went. No one was allowed to discuss the black eyes he gave his wife every other night. No one could question why his anger seemed to come and go with no cause but a random spark.
I was thus raised into being a woman shaped by fear and abuse. Girls who asked too many questions, I was told, were looking for a husband. I shouldn’t challenge why things happened the way they did or I’d have to be married off.
Then the day finally arrived when I was. At the age of 16, my uncle decided I was ready to be engaged to someone 12 years my senior. Someone I had never heard of or met before. My uncle had enough of the questions and trouble I stirred. I was sent to Pakistan to visit my grandmother under a pretense. The real objective was my betrothal. Much against my will, an engagement ceremony was held and I eventually returned to Canada. My uncle decided since I was a woman who was given to another household, he couldn’t risk me going to a regular high school anymore. So I began grade 11 online through distance learning.
In two years time, and through much struggle, I was eventually sent back to Pakistan to be married at the age of 18. I can’t go into the details of what it was like to be forced into those experiences. They are too painful.
I was left alone and unsupported for almost a year in an unfamiliar land with strange people. I was the youngest daughter-in-law of a household with over 20 members. The extreme conditions and stresses led me to have a miscarriage at the age of 19.
Eventually, I sponsored my husband to Canada and had my now 7-year-old son two weeks before he arrived in the country. It had always been my dream to attend university, so I decided to enroll my son in a daycare and begin evening classes. At first, my husband didn’t care. He didn’t think my education was going to go anywhere. When he began to see how influenced I was by my newfound interest in philosophy, he began to get worried. Questioning his moral and religious authority over me did not sit well with him, and neither did my refusal to wear a burqa anymore.
My husband insisted that after I got my diploma, there would be no more school for me. I had to stay at home like a dutiful wife and have more children. To me, this seemed impossible. I had gone from being locked in my own mind with my own thoughts for fear of being a sinner… to becoming a person capable of being someone other than just a wife or lesser being.
Finally, after four years of abuse, both emotional and physical, I left my husband. One night, as he was making an attempt on my life, my sister escaped the room long enough to call the police. When they escorted him away, I grabbed my son and bags and left the house with my sister. Out of fear for my life, I went to see my uncle when I was summoned. He told me I had two options: to return to my husband or to live in his home forever as a slave to the rest of the family. Since I choose neither, he took my family and siblings away. He moved to another province because he said I had shamed him in society. I had brought dishonor on the family and killing me wasn’t allowed here. To this day, he won’t speak to me and actively frightens the rest of the family from trying to contact me.
Poverty, hardship, struggle, and four years of suffering later, here I am. Still alone. But slowly planting roots with the friends I have made along the path to freedom. Slowly finding ways to escape the traps set for me so I may complete my lifelong dream of obtaining a PhD.
Since leaving my husband four years ago, I have become involved in politics, in human rights advocacy, and in the fight for accessible education for all battered individuals. My dream is to complete my education and invest my time in supporting orphans with education, and a school for girls in Afghanistan. I want to be shouting from the rooftops that we do not need to be confined to the destinies preached to us by the ruling men. I want to empower women to see the world through their own lens. I want women to unite in their shared hardships and vow to take a stand against gender discrimination and abuse.
I do not want my mom’s death to be in vain. She was the victim of honor-based violence. Her destiny may one day be mine. After all, I have an ex-husband running around who tries to convince people of my need to die. If I make it alive long enough to encourage and empower women into action, then I will not have died in vain.
There are details too disturbing to recount that I have left out. Perhaps one day when I find the strength, I will share my struggles in a way that brings about inspiration. For now though, it is enough to say I am free. Each breath I inhale is a precious reminder of how lucky I am to be an educated woman who is breathing the air in a place of her choice.