Funded by the State Library of Western Australia, 16 Days, 16 Stories is a courageous new collection of stories presented in solidarity with survivors of domestic violence, recorded for the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

It took six years of silence before someone thought to ask Roia– young, immigrant, mother-of-four in an abusive relationship–if she needed help. Here, she tells her harrowing story of escaping violence, navigating faith and culture, and listening to other women.

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following story contains themes of family and domestic violence that some listeners may find distressing. If you have been impacted by family or domestic violence and are in need of support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service.

Photograph of Roia Atmar

[Transcript]

My name is Roia Atmar and I am a survivor of domestic violence.

The reason I’m here sharing my experience as a victim as well as a survivor is to let anybody that’s listening to this and going through the same thing, [know] that they’re not alone. There is help available and that they can ask for help when it’s safe to do so.

I came to Australia when I was 14, after I got married to a man that I didn’t know, who I met for the first time a few days before my marriage in Pakistan. And then three days after the wedding, I came to Perth with him. Coming to Perth by myself with him, having no family and no friends and nobody that I knew, it was a very new experience for me. I couldn’t speak English. I didn’t know anything about the culture or the way of life or what was expected of me and being so young, even coming from my country, I guess I was not very aware of what life was all about. So, I was like, living everyday, and learning as I was living and trying to make the best of it.

Life wasn’t easy because in the first year of marriage, even though he did not lay a hand on me, he did not abuse me, he did control every aspect of my life from what I was allowed to wear, to who I was allowed to speak to, where I was allowed to go, what I was supposed to eat. I wasn’t allowed to go to school. I was told that, you know, I’m married. So, even though I was 14, it just wasn’t for me and I had to be a grown up. So, I had no chance interacting with anybody outside from him and his family.

I had my first child when I was 15. It was a very, very new experience for me. It was, it was like… it was quite different. I guess the abuse, the physical abuse with him, it started after I had my son; when I came back from hospital and sometimes you always think about like, “Why did he not physically abuse me?” or, “He didn’t do anything in the first year?” I think it’s in our culture, like when you marry somebody and once you have a child, then you’re bound to them forever. And that’s when he knew, after I had my son, that I was not going to leave him because I was not going to risk anything with my kids.

He was very abusive. Very manipulative. He had this two different personas, [one] of a person he was in front of other people and what our life was about, and then there was this other person inside the house, behind closed doors when nobody was around. In front of everybody else, he absolutely adored everything about me. He would praise me, and he would call me like the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect human being. He would always say, “I don’t know what good I have done that I had such a, you know, good wife like her…” but behind closed doors, I couldn’t do anything right. I couldn’t say anything right. Everything that went wrong in the relationship was my fault. Everything that went wrong anywhere else was my fault. It was always something that I did. Something that I said or something that my family did or said.

And at the beginning, I remember when he used to say these things, in my head I used to think like, you know, when he would blame me for stuff, I would go like, you know, that’s like stupid, it’s not my fault. But as time went by and the more he kept blaming me for everything, the more he told me that I was nothing, the more he told me that it was all my fault, I think in time I started believing that as well. I felt responsible for his behaviour, for what he did. So, it was always: If only I kept the kids quiet. If only I cooked the food nicer. If only the house was cleaner, he wouldn’t do these things.

It took me a long time. It took me quite a few years to realise the person that he was, that no matter what I said or what I did or how hard I tried, he was not going to change. By that time, he had such a powerful hold on me. He had manipulated me into believing that everything that I did, everything that I said, he would know it and I was too scared of him. I was too scared of losing my children.

He would always tell me like, you know, when he was only angry at me, he would tell me that how he was going to kill me and chop me up and throw me in the rubbish. Or if he was angry at me and my kids, he was going to do the same to all of us and he would tell me that nobody would ever find out. And I honestly believed that he was capable of doing it and that nobody would find out. Or sometimes he would tell me that he would take my children and he would go back to Pakistan and he would marry somebody else and I would never see my kids. So, I always told myself that I always had to be good enough and smart enough not to ever make him that upset for him to hurt us or for him to take my children away from me.

And I thought that it was just my life because nobody asked me if I was okay. Nobody asked me if I needed help. There are a lot of occasions when I came across people, even outside from his family, whether it was the hospital or my GP or the police that would come and talk to him about the things that he had done, and of all those times–I guess out of ignorance–nobody thought about like, you know, asking me if I was okay; if my children are okay. So, I thought nobody cared, and that it was just my life and I had to do what I had to do.

It was in December ’97, after a night out to his sister’s house, we went and visited his family. It was an okay night. He wasn’t upset or angry or anything. We came back home late at night. We used to have this massive four-bedroom house, but we all had to sleep in the same room, me, him and my four children. And my youngest daughter, she was about eight months old. So, it was late at night, we went to bed, then we went to sleep. Later at night, my youngest daughter woke up for a feed, so I got up to feed her and he saw me waking up and he started abusing me like verbally. He was quite angry at the fact that I was sleeping and apparently, he was up worrying about how he was going to pay the bills. And it was like, so, we had financial difficulties that of course it was my fault, but it was typical, he always blamed everything and anything on me. The one rule that we had, like when he used to get upset or angry: I was never allowed to speak back. I was never allowed to reply or make a noise or do anything.

And that night, he kept going on about how he never should have married me and how I was ugly. And to this day, I don’t know what provoked me to ask him. I asked him when he kept saying that I was so ugly, I said, “What is wrong with me, that you keep saying that?” And it shocked him because that was the first time in so many years that I had ever spoken back to him. And he slapped me really hard in my mouth. Apparently in his eyes I had turned into a western woman and he was getting really angry. So, I picked up my daughter and I said I’ll leave the room to give him some time to cool down. And because he was getting loud, I was halfway through the room that my youngest son woke up and he wanted to go to the bathroom. So, I came, I had my daughter in my right arm, and I picked up my youngest son with my left arm, and took him to the en-suite and I could hear him going to the kitchen looking for a knife. And he came back, I was still waiting for my son to finish, he looked at me and he said, “You don’t believe me, that I’ll kill you, do you?” So, he went back to the kitchen and when he came back, he had a bottle of turpentine, which he opened and he threw it on my left shoulder, because I had my daughter and my right arm. And he set me on fire. I put my daughter down on the bed and I asked him to get my younger son off the toilet seat. And I went towards the front door. I don’t know why I went towards the front door because the door was always locked. He always used to lock doors and keep the keys with himself. I then, I went to the phone and I called his brother who came and took me to the hospital. And when we went to the hospital, he told the staff in the hospital and my scarf got on fire and that’s how I was burned. And that was the story with the hospital for I think the next 10 days.

And when my family found out what had happened, they came and visited me in the hospital. And at that time, the hospital staff, they knew that something was wrong. So, my uncle, he’d rung some places and he’d asked for some advice about what to do. So, I had a visit from the social worker in the hospital that was arranged by the police to come and talk to me, who came, and they asked if I needed help. And that was the first time, I’d lived in Australia for about six years, that was the first time that somebody asked if I needed help. But of course, I was still very scared, ‘cause when I was in hospital, his family had my children, and I was too scared to say anything in case either him or his family take my kids back to Pakistan and I would never see them again. So, when the police came and they explained to me that I can actually get a violence restraining order against him and his family and I can go through the Family Court, then get my children removed, again, that was the first time that I heard that police actually care about what’s happening between a husband and a wife. That was the first time I heard that there was such thing as Family Court, that people can go and you know, can remove my children. So, the police went the next day and got the orders and my mum had my children and when they come and they told me, that was the first time ever since I had gotten married and came to Australia, that I felt like, “Wow, somebody actually cares about what’s happening to my children and what’s happening to me.”

They asked me what happened. I told them, they believed what I said. They didn’t go back to him to verify that what I was telling was the truth. They didn’t go back to his family. They didn’t go back to my family. They just trusted what I said.

So, it was then that I decided that I was never going to go back to him. I gave my statement to the police that afternoon. He was charged with grievous bodily harm and I had a restraining order against him and his entire family. My mum had my children, she was looking after my kids. It was a very difficult time. Of course, like I had four children and they’re like six years, six years of age that my mum was looking after them and I was in hospital with 35per cent of burns, recovery of that. My kids were all, you know, saw that, witnessed it, which wasn’t easy on anybody, especially kids as young as that. But I was one of the lucky ones because as soon as it came out that what had happened, every person that I came across, they were very helpful. Everybody did their job properly. VROs were put in place and you know, my kids were removed. Statement was taken. He was charged.

Life hasn’t been easy since ‘cause there was like a lot of dramas afterwards. Even though he was sentenced to 12 years, I think he only served about five years in prison with parole, and then he came out, and he did his best to make life as difficult as possible for me and for my children. But we had a really good support network in place, and I guess we came out of out of it okay. And this is one of the reasons that I feel so strongly about sharing our experience and about wanting to raise awareness that I know when I was married, when I was there with him, when I was going through all the abuse that he…what he did to me and my children, I didn’t think that anybody cared. I didn’t think there was any help available. I didn’t know anything about women’s refuges. I didn’t know anything about how the system worked. And so, had I known that, I always get asked this question, especially from the police that you know, “If somebody had asked you while you were married to him that if you needed help, would you have left him?” And I say, “Yes, I would have, if I was asked the right way in the right environment and in a safe place, I would have.”

I think the one thing that I feel strongly, and I found out after I left the relationship, of course, I come from Afghanistan and I’m a Muslim, but growing up in Afghanistan, my knowledge of Islam was like: being a Muslim, if you’re Muslim, you pray five times a day and you fast during Ramadan and that was it. There was no: Women can’t do this. Women can’t study, women have no rights, women are not allowed to do this, who they need to be, none of those things.

So, when we came to Pakistan, obviously, we were brought into an environment when people practiced the culture like really, really strong. And even when I came to Australia, because our book like the Holy Quran, it’s in Arabic, I can read the book from beginning to the end. The thing is I have no idea what it means. Back then, like for translation, for finding out what it says, you always had to go to an Imam, to tell you what it meant. And unfortunately, most of the time people like these Imams would tell you what they wanted you to know as opposed to what it actually said. I found out my rights as a Muslim woman years later, after when I read the Quran with English translation and that helped me make a lot of decisions. And one of the most interesting that I found out that was one of the most, the biggest misconceptions I think, a lot of people think that in Islam (and this includes Muslim women as well) that women are lower than men. Somehow men are higher. It’s not true. It says so, there’s a verse in the Quran that men and women are equal. The only difference between a man and a woman is that a woman is more delicate, so you tend to take better care of her.

I strongly believe that as Muslims, I guess, our biggest disadvantage is that we practice culture and religion together and we don’t know the difference, which part is culture, which part is religion. And in our culture and a lot of like the Muslim cultures, it is really, really important to have that reputation in the community. I think my ex-husband’s family, before everything happened, they used to have the reputation of being the perfect Muslim family, until what happened to me, and it all went to court and then people start questioning that. And for years I used to get his mum and his sister and his family com[ing] to my house, begging me, pleading, crying, asking me to go back. They would never say like, you know, “He did this thing, he’s sorry, or he’s not sorry, get over it and come back…” they would just go, “Oh, just forget, you know what happened, move on.” And I couldn’t understand why they kept doing that. It was only later on that I found that all those efforts that they made, all this crying, it wasn’t because they cared about him or they cared about me or my children. It was because of what happened with what he did to me, they lost that reputation out in the community. The only way for them to get back that reputation was if I had gone back to them. So, when I went, if I had gone back to them, they would have turned around and said like, “See, it wasn’t us. It was her.”

You grew up listening to, you know, your grandma tell the women in the family that they always talk about, you know how such-and-such’s daughter is like, such a good girl, because so many stuff had happened. She kept her mouth shut. She did not embarrass her family. She was raised up right. Even though nobody sat me down when I was growing up and told me that, you know, whatever your husband does or his family does, you have to keep your mouth shut and you have to take it and you don’t talk about it… It was just like growing up, hearing the stories, it gets instilled in you and you grow up with that, with that thinking, without even knowing why you’re doing that.

A lot of women, they let a lot of stuff go and they, they think it’s like the husband’s right to control them; it’s husband’s right to tell them what to do, it’s the husband’s right because he’s the husband and it’s not so. But that’s something, like, really important as I said, and I always say that men and women, we are we equal, regardless of the culture or the religion that we practice. And I know for a fact, one of the biggest reasons that nobody asked me if I was okay back then when I was there, it was because when I was with him, I used to wear a scarf and a long dress and like, dress that way, and people didn’t want to offend my culture and my religion. And I always say that as a woman, as a human being, as a Muslim, I would have rather they offended my religion and asked me if I was okay if my children are okay and save my children going through what they went through, save me going through what I went through, than for them to respect my culture and stayed quiet.

Copyright © 2019 Roia Atmar

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Roia Atmar. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

Production by Rita Saggar and Claudia Mancini. Recording by Terri Bellem.

Photo by Claudia Mancini.


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