Another night, another nightmare.
I am with a friend of mine—a friend that I know my ex would have strongly disapproved of. All is well, it’s a sunny day and my heart is light… until a tall, male shadow approaches from the side.
It’s my ex. I am petrified. I can’t move.
And then I wake up. Whew. It was only a dream. And I woke up before he could… say or do anything.
“But I’m divorced now,” I told myself. “I’m divorced! He’s not my husband any more. He had no right to say or do anything to me or anyone else, regardless of what he thinks of anything I do or who I choose to spend time with! No right whatsoever!”
It was hard to get back to sleep.
* * * * * *
Hasn’t it been long enough, I wonder. Long enough that I think I should be pretty much over it by now. Especially as he hardly ever raised his hand against me.
Why is there still fear in the marrow of my bones?
Part of it is the kids, I suppose. Through them, he knows a certain amount about my life. And he’s critical of it, under the guise of being concerned about how the kids are being raised. And so is his family. Which is ridiculous, really, given that my life is incredibly tame—work, home, run errands… lather, rinse, repeat.
Where did this fear come from, and why won’t it leave?
I wasn’t always afraid of him. Not in the beginning, when I first met him. He did slap me in the face once when I said something he didn’t like before I married him. I was more shocked and humiliated than anything—and too naive to realize that this was a gigantic red flag. I assumed that this was an exception and that he’d never do it again.
Because he seemed like a very calm and collected person most of the time. And by and large, he was. Until we lived with his family, in another country, which was neither their homeland nor mine. It wasn’t a place where it would have made any sense to call the police on a domestic dispute. And the disputes in our home never seemed to end. Neither did the violence.
I witnessed violence, but it was rarely directed at me. The main conflicts going on didn’t really involve me. I had no idea what to do. There didn’t seem to be anything to do, except to try to stay out of the way and keep my kids out of the way too. My feeble attempts to speak to him about what was going on didn’t work. He basically laughed off my concerns. It was clear that at least some of the violence that was going on was a continuation of patterns of relating that had been established years ago in his (and their) home country.
In the end, the situation calmed down considerably after several of the relatives who had been most in conflict with my ex moved out. We didn’t speak of it afterwards.
But I had seen what he could and would do, when he got upset enough.
Fast-forward some years later. He had taken a second wife, I was beginning to question the viability of our marriage, and he was beginning to realize that some of my attitudes were changing. He was becoming increasingly intimidating. I took to jamming furniture behind the bedroom door so that he couldn’t come in while I was asleep. I wouldn’t sleep unless I was barricaded in.
Once I finally managed to leave, I took great comfort in the fact that I had moved far away from the city where he was living. And he had no way of getting to where I was.
Now, he’s on another continent. He shouldn’t still be haunting me.
I remember back when my conservative Muslim community would (reluctantly and rarely) acknowledge that some men do abuse their wives. But they would define “abuse” very narrowly—basically, extreme physical violence that wounds, breaks bones, or threatens the woman’s life. And for years, I didn’t really see what was wrong with that definition of abuse, rationally speaking. It bothered me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why, and in any case, we were told that since the Qur’an mentions hitting as a punishment for rebellious wives it isn’t allowable to deny that in some extreme cases it can be justifiable. So, I didn’t believe that I could question it. At the same time, I didn’t see myself as a rebellious wife, so I didn’t feel that it pertained to me.
Now, I am realizing that the possibility of being hit—even if it actually only happens a couple of times—and seeing others being hit can leave a lasting impact. An impact that isn’t in my conscious mind, but bubbles up now and again in nightmares, or at odd times when it occurs to me that my ex wouldn’t approve of X or Y, and I reflexively shrink inwardly.
The theory behind my conservative Muslim community’s endorsement of a husband’s right and duty to chastise his rebellious wife was the idea that this is his moral obligation, and that it is ultimately for the good of her own soul, as well as of the family. But there’s nothing moral or salvific about my nightmares and residual fears of my ex. This has nothing to do with conscience. It’s not brought on by me feeling guilty about anything I’ve done or am doing. It’s about fear of someone else feeling entitled to control me, and to raise his hand against me if I don’t comply.