How I Escaped

By James, Sabatina | Newsweek, March 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

How I Escaped


James, Sabatina, Newsweek


Byline: Sabatina James

When I refused an arranged marriage, I sparked a violent war with my mother--and a threat on my life.

When I was 18, my parents threatened to kill me. And they meant it. If they had their way, I would probably be dead today.

The trouble started when I was 15. At the time, my family was living in the Austrian city of Linz, a world away from our native Pakistan, where I had grown up in a rural village in the shadow of the Kashmir mountains. I loved the freedoms of my new life in Europe--the T-shirts and jeans, the lipstick and eyeliner. My conservative parents didn't. We fought about swimming lessons and acting classes, which my father said were for prostitutes. Tampons were an issue, too--my mother thought they would ruin my virginity.

When my mother found my diary one day and learned that I had kissed a boy in the park after school, she cracked me across the cheek, slammed me against the wall, and kicked my legs, calling me a whore. When she herself was my age, she was settling into an arranged marriage. She thought it was time for me to do the same.

I disagreed. Thus began a violent three-year battle with my mother.

In families like mine, rooted in tribal tradition, marriage is a daughter's fate. And fathers are not always the primary enforcers--sometimes it's the mothers. This is much worse, in my opinion. When you're becoming a mature young woman and your mother is beating you, it's very damaging. You have no anchor.

My mother began watching my every move. One day, when she found a T-shirt that she felt was too skimpy, she smacked me hard in the face with a shoe, splitting my lip. Still, I refused to submit. I didn't want to disappear into a forced marriage. I wanted my freedom.

To my parents, my rebellion was a source of deep shame. They felt embarrassed among their Pakistani peers in Austria. They became more determined than ever to marry me off and restore the family "honor."

When I was 16, my family visited Pakistan. I remember walking outside in an outfit I felt was perfectly modest--loose pants and a blouse. Others saw it differently. A crowd of men formed, hooting and catcalling. That day my mother beat me again, in front of a roomful of relatives.

And then she beat herself. …

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