A letter to … my ex-mother-in-law, a double agent of patriarchy

You were my mother-in-law for less than three years, and though my short brush with you scarred me for life, it taught me to honour my feelings.

Drawing of a woman walking up a ladder
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Dear ex-mother-in-law,

By the time I was 25, I’d left two husbands. The second of those was your son.

My mother thinks I shouldn’t write to you, that I should leave the past behind, what’s done is done, and nothing can change it. But the silencing of women has been relied on by abusers for centuries.

My mother’s concerns are steeped in the Pakistani culture she was raised in. It taught her to ignore her feelings, to minimise herself, becoming smaller and smaller until she was almost invisible.

For better or worse, my mother’s voice is the voice in my head. But for a time, back in my 20s, that voice was paired with yours. You were my mother-in-law for just under three years, and though my short brush with you scarred me for life, it taught me to honour my feelings.

I was just 23 years old when you chose me to marry your son. He was 25. I’d ended a marriage a year earlier and was living with my parents.

It was a time when nice British Pakistani girls were taught that if we compromised, and tolerated unkindness, people would grow kinder, and our lives easier. None of this was true.

My first marriage, though it lasted only three months, weighed heavy on me, and my family was eager for me to remarry. I wish I’d known how quickly time passes, and what a tiny fraction of a lifetime, that quarter of a year would prove to be, but I was trapped in a culture that celebrated virginity and despised divorce. You were presented as a saviour, the mother of a son who could erase a mistake. How wrong they were.

I remember your visit to my parents’ house so vividly. You sat on the sofa, looking out across the garden, sipping tea in a bone china cup, your husband beside you. You were a secondary school teacher, presenting as a forward-thinking, liberal woman. My mum was impressed by your words. Despite being a graduate herself, and teaching English as a second language, she rarely spoke of her achievements. But you did. You said you were a published author. I later learned that the GCSE Urdu textbook you’d written had never found a publisher, and it was self-published and self-circulated. Smoke and mirrors were your stock and trade right from the start.

I was taken in by your professed allyship. I didn’t want to live in an extended family system; my last marriage had ended because of my mother-in-law taking a dislike to me, and my husband not being able to stand up for me. Seeing my reticence, your son told me things would be different if I agreed to the marriage, that if you and I ever disagreed, he would stand with me. I believed him. “He was raised by a feminist,” I thought.

You often talked about women’s rights to education, to work, to live how they choose. You were vocal at the mosque, with friends and family, in a way that Pakistani women were reluctant to be publicly, fearing a backlash. You told me you’d gone on hunger strike to convince your parents to let you go to university. That you fought racism in schools, walked around with your resignation letter in your pocket, and were unafraid to call things out.

But days after the wedding, I learned that the values you espoused did not apply to me. You had set up a hierarchy with yourself at the top, using the tools of patriarchy to maintain your own position.

You made it clear what you expected of me. By the end of the two years, I was waiting on you, your husband, and your son hand and foot, cooking and serving all the meals, starching and ironing everyone’s clothes, cleaning the house, driving you places, and ending each day by bringing you a biscuit with your cup of tea, as you sat on the sofa watching television with your husband. Your three daughters would visit often, bringing with them their husbands and five children. I ran around, making dinners, serving them, and clearing dishes, like a server in a restaurant, while you held court at the dining table.

My memories of living in your house are fading fast, but they still leave me gasping for breath. My body has kept score, of the stress, anxiety, and fear, that living with you and your family inflicted. And when I sit down after a long day of work, household chores, and running after my children, I think of all the time you took from me, all the work I did, and how grateful I would be if someone did that for me. But you weren’t grateful. You were the mother of a son, and I was his wife, to your mind, my unpaid labour was your God-given right.

In an attempt to escape the drudgery, I started temping as an accounts assistant for a shipping company. It was a short reprieve. On the train journey home, dread would come over me, tightening my chest, at the thought of what awaited me. Life with you was on a knife-edge, I never knew what would upset you, or when you’d complain to your son, who would blame me and fly into a rage over the smallest thing. Like the time you saw a dead fly on the carpeted stairs. “What good is her salary to me?” you had shouted. You were angry, and I wonder if it was your loss of control over me now that I was working outside the home, and had a taste of freedom, that really riled you. You didn’t believe in equality for all women, just for yourself.

It’s hard to explain how emotional abuse works. Each thing sounds trivial on its own, but the drip-drip of complaints, manipulation, annoyance, and anger wears you down, and you find yourself becoming compliant in exchange for a peaceful life. But there was no peaceful life because your demands just grew.

You targeted me, the way abusers target and groom vulnerable prey. You believed you should be celebrated for marrying your only son to a divorced woman, and have my eternal gratitude. My mother will never forget the way you spat the word “mutalqa” (Urdu for a divorced woman) at her after I’d left.

I was raised in a culture where compliant women are “good” women. Silence keeps our honour, and the honour of our families intact. If we are raped, it is our honour that has been stolen. It resides between our legs, in the holding of our tongues, and in the hiding of everyone else’s sins. We are led to believe that a woman is nothing without it, but I only truly became myself once I handed my honour back to you.

On Mondays, I would drive you to the class where you taught Urdu at a secondary school in the afternoons. On the way, you would gaslight me, weaponising the perceived shame of my past against me. Groomed to be a victim of your abuse by hugs laced with advice that you said was for my own good, that would allow my family to remain “honourable” in society, and in turn, allow my sisters to find good partners. In a culture where women aren’t valued for their opinions, if I was compliant, the kind of woman who looked after her in-laws, people would be more inclined to ask for my sisters’ hand in marriage. About this, you were right. My leaving your son marked the women in my family as strong-minded. My intolerance of your mistreatment was seen as an inability to compromise.

Unpicking the damage was a painstaking process. “You skivvied for them,” said the senior lecturer at the university where I was applying for a Master’s. It was a couple of months after I’d left, and I had seen an advert for the fully-funded course in the local paper. I was raw, and honest, and I told him about my experiences during the interview. He was shocked.  It was the first time someone had said this, and it hit hard. I was in survival mode and hadn’t started processing what had happened, until that moment. I had a visceral reaction to the definition of me as a domestic worker, because I finally realised that that was how you saw me.

There were other players in that house, but you were the one who turned the screw. You were a stereotype of a mother-in-law. You could have been the one to bring change, to be a beacon, to genuinely champion your daughter-in-law, but you pandered to your own ego.

I remember you sulking for days. You’d be in a mood, refuse to talk properly, blaming me for things I hadn’t done. One time, you went to stay with your daughter and refused to come home, and I had to convince you to return with coddling and apologies. There was the time you claimed I’d told your son to sit at my feet at a party, because that’s where he belonged. Another time you’d said your husband and I were colluding against you in some untoward manner. You told me you didn’t want me to get a mobile phone, because there were enough of them in the house. One of the first things I bought after leaving was a small orange and white phone.

I was a woman who was so afraid of causing offence that I whispered truths. You were a woman who brazenly lied to, and manipulated, your son to maintain control over him. Your jealousy meant you’d fill his head with stories before every trip he and I took away. I remember a weekend in Paris where he shouted at me for two whole days. I’d have to unpick the things he was saying, and they would always reveal some grudge or issue that you had had with me – that I hadn’t done your husband’s laundry, I didn’t wear the clothes you’d bought me, my parents hadn’t raised me to be respectful, or my brothers didn’t visit. Things that you’d told him upset you, just before we left, and that he had nursed on your behalf until they grew to monstrous proportions. He’d feel awful afterwards, confessing everything. But the damage was done.

Part of your abuse was making me pretend that none of it impacted me. You told me I shouldn’t tell my parents or friends if I was upset. I wasn’t even allowed to look upset in front of people. I remember your daughter asking me why I looked sad at a funeral.

You weren’t just a double agent, you were a general of the patriarchy and you taught your son its ways.

I’ll never forget the time I asked him to switch on the rice cooker because I had to pop out for an appointment. He just had to add rice and water to the pot and flick a switch.  He asked you to help. When I came home you were angry, explaining to me that, “If men learnt to do women’s work, then they wouldn’t need us.” I remember thinking you were wrong, that equality was based on respect, not need. That men and women should work together because it is right, not because they have use for each other.

The damage you did to me, and my family is irreparable. I can never forgive the things my parents went through because of you, the looks of sadness and heartache on their faces; the cold and mean manner you displayed when they came to your house to try and find a way to help us reconcile. My father cried that day at your house. You didn’t care. He was afraid that my life was over, because that’s what society, and people like you, made him believe. Your actions penetrated deep into our lives, and my siblings were tarred with the same brush of shame as me.

We will never be OK. Your jealousy, vindictiveness, and the lies you spread about me, changed me. I watched women turn away from me at the mosque, because of it. I’d tried to live an unblemished life, but had found myself accused of things I hadn’t done. I decided I’d had enough, and bludgeoned by your abuse, I became a fighter and I haven’t stopped since. I speak the truth, and stand beside women who need me, even in difficult circumstances. But truth-tellers are never celebrated, and I’m battle-scarred and bruised.

I compartmentalise my life to function like a normal person. I work constantly to break the cycle of trauma you inflicted on me. This is your legacy.

Feminism isn’t about celebrating women who do the work that men used to do. It is about supporting women in all that we do. Feminism is not feminism if after getting an education, and climbing the ladder, you stamp on the fingertips of those coming up behind you. It is about dismantling the structures that hold all women down. True empowerment results in collective power.

When I landed my first journalism job, I thought of you. Of myself, having a panic attack, lying on the bedroom floor, like that dead fly that everyone walked past, but no one moved. I thought of all of the things you said, the way you made me feel, and I used it as rocket fuel.

When I met the man who would become my husband, I thought of you. You’d tried to ruin my reputation, but my husband didn’t care about that. The division of women into good and bad didn’t exist in his head.

Looking back at that time, it’s hard to understand why I cowed to your demands. “I don’t know that version of you,” says my husband.

I don’t know that version of me either.

I choose to be married to my husband, he’s not my crutch. We are whole without each other, but better together.

We have three sons now. Each one tells me how much he loves me. I think of how afraid you were of losing your son to me. One day my boys will become men and find wives of their own. They’ll look at someone else the way they look at me. None of this fills me with dread, this is my role in life, to raise them to be good men, allies to women.

Disregarding what society decides is honourable, and what is dishonourable, set me free. I have understood that there is nothing to fear, except the cowardice that would keep us in chains.

I dreamed about you one night. You were standing on the other side of a window desperate to talk to me. The next day I heard you’d died and I wondered if your desperation to be at the top of the hierarchy had been worth it. Seeing the fruits of sisterhood in my life, and knowing the joy of watching women rise, something tells me it wasn’t.

Source: Al Jazeera