I didn’t place her at first. I should have recognised her though, she hadn’t changed much from when I last saw her – seven years ago. She didn’t see me but my former sister in-law made eye contact with me. A flash of recognition, the start of a smile before it dawned on her who I was and it quickly dropped. There was no smile from me – I wanted no acknowledgement from her nor did I want to acknowledge her. I don’t dislike her as such – she is as much a victim of an abusive system as I was subjected to, she just played by the rules………..unlike me.
If that was my former SIL then the shorter frame of the woman beside her could only be one person. My former mother in law. She spoke to someone in Urdu and her gravelly voice flicked on the switch of my past. Her voice travelling through a realm of space, bringing me to a time when I was much younger and helplessly bound to a culture I never fully understood.
I brushed past them both, wanting no interaction, and took my place in the prayer hall hoping the confusion of people would engulf me. I steadied myself with a few deep breaths trying to slow my heart rate – it just made it work harder. I felt agitated and alert, my body warning me of danger. I watched, making sure they didn’t encroach on my space. I was anxious but tried not to show it as my cousin sat beside me chatting excitedly. I eventually cut her short, apologizing and explaining why I couldn’t focus……..enough to make even the most emotionally mature quiver in awkwardness. She handled it well and engaged with me on it a little.
I tried to focus on the Eid prayer but I was having visions. My ex MIL standing on the mosque stairways and me, sneaking out the prayer hall to push her over the edge. “Allah hu Akber”, the prayer had started. Okay, focus. God’s house – dark thoughts should be on the backburner. “Asalaam-alaykum wa rahmatullah”, five minutes later and the prayer ends. I hover around for a while………..why should I leave sharp just because I’ll bump into them I think defiantly. “Because you’re uncomfortable and panicked”, Zara* tells me. I take a handful of sweets, hug a few people and make my exit.
I hesitantly included that vision…….hesitating because if something happens to her now I will most definitely be a prime suspect. These images are more common for people than I once thought. A friend of mine whose family member was raped had visions of strangling the rapist. A girl I met going through a divorce, having been emotionally abused by her ex MIL told me that she had visions of running her over with a car. Maybe you too? How many of you aggravated by your boss, imagine slinging her out a ten story building?
I’m wary of talking too much about what my ex in-laws did; the he said-she said that it could turn into but most importantly I don’t want to allow abusers to become victims. My ex MIL’s behaviours were abusive in their own right, emotional and intended to cause fear. It was subtle but it worked well – the woman still terrifies me.
Later in the week, I mention to a friend of mine that I saw them. “Did you go upto them and say Salaam/hello?”, she asks. “Why would I do that?”, I ask her, somewhat bewildered. “Erm…because you’re the bigger person!!”
I can’t hide my dislike for the last statement. “Always be the bigger person”. That’s how I was raised and it was a common message growing up. It implies we should unconditionally accept bad behaviour. It implies that I should greet someone who caused me endless anxiety because that’s deemed to be the right thing to do. It implies I should negate my own feelings.
That, to me, is toxic culture. Toxic culture teaches women to respect their in-laws and to never expect respect back. Toxic culture teaches women that in-laws can cross boundaries because boundaries shouldn’t exist. Toxic culture teaches women to lose their voice.
I chose instead, to listen to myself. My heart pounding in my ears told me to protect myself and so I did. When the beginnings of anger seeped through, anger at myself for my defiant face not matching my churning inside, I listened to Zara who gently reminded me I’d done well.
She laid it out for me though as she often does. If I want to stop feeling this way whenever I see them then I need to stop avoiding places that I know they’re likely to be. I would need to step out the protective world I had created for myself; a world where no ex in-laws could ever cross my path.
It’s uncomfortable but I’m up for the challenge.