By Kenneth Justice
“My parents forced me into marriage at age fourteen” she said
One day a week I happen to work in a city that has the largest concentration of Arab immigrants outside of the Middle East. It was awhile back that I was sitting at coffee when I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed like the two mid-30ish women sitting beside me were practically having a party right there at the coffee shop and so I asked them what they were celebrating.
“My friend here is officially divorced and since we don’t drink alcohol we decided to get coffee to celebrate!” said one of the women
It turns out that while she was still living in Iraq, the woman’s parents forced her into marriage at the age of fourteen. Apparently arranged marriage is still common among Muslim families and perhaps life would have turned out different for the young woman and her new husband had they stayed living in Iraq surrounded by their relatives, but shortly after her eighteenth birthday the husband moved her and their two children (imagine having two children before you turned 18!) to the United States and for the next decade and a half of her life…..things went really bad.
“My husband was a tyrant” she said, “I obeyed him like I was taught, but no amount of obedience ever pleased him and he would often hit me and curse at me in front of the children. Perhaps it was the pressure of having to provide for us here in the United States, maybe it was the stress of being away from so much of our family. But after a few years of living here he started to drink alcohol and from then on things got progressively worse”
Drinking alcohol is considered taboo by most Muslims, “For more than fifteen years I put up with his emotional and physical abuse and since my family was back home in Iraq it was easy to prevent them from knowing what was going on. I was ashamed, I believed it was my fault that my husband hit me. I believed I needed to be a better wife. I believed divorce was wrong so I never even considered that as an option” she said
It was about five years ago that the woman’s younger sisters immigrated to the U.S. and shortly after that they were followed by her parents. Soon, the young mother could no longer hide the emotional and physical scars of abuse that she was suffering at the hand of her husband. Her father was brought to tears by what was going on and he confronted the husband numerous times demanding that he stop; all to no avail.
It wasn’t until the woman’s husband was arrested for a third DUI that life began to turn around. Faced with the prospect of a lengthy jail sentence, he snuck away and moved back to Iraq, abandoning his wife and their children (of which they now had four). She was now free of him and with her father’s blessings she filed for divorce. “I will always live with the scars of my past” she said, and after taking a quick glance around the coffee shop to make sure nobody was looking she rolled up the sleeve of her shirt and showed me a massive scar on her arm, “it is a reminder of what my ex did to me and that I will never allow another man to do the same” she said
The woman’s parents purchased a large house right next door to where she and her children live and her father has reoriented his entire life in order to be there for his grandchildren, “My father lives with a tremendous amount of guilt for making me marry that man, but I tell him ‘what can you know, you were doing what you thought was right’ “
I’m not sure that it is all that kosher for Muslim women to be talking to a stranger at a coffee house so for the entire length of the conversation I tried to be very delicate and not ask too many questions. Ultimately, I suspect that it was because the woman and her sister were celebrating her divorce that had just been finalized earlier in the day that led her to being open to talking to me. Joy has a way of breaking down barriers.
I can’t really say I understand or relate to what this young woman went through. My life has been very different from the one she has lived for the last twenty years……yet I will not soon forget the haunting sadness which at times swept across her face, and also the joy that had begun to break through the darkness.
My dogs woke me up an hour earlier this morning, but coffee is still good even at 3:30 AM…..
If you haven’t heard I’m currently on a national and worldwide tour of 100 coffee houses…. check my homepage for dates and locations; I’d love to have coffee with YOU!