Every girl dreams of marrying her best friend; that one individual she trusts with her life, the one person she will dress up for and walk down the aisle to, surrounded by her loved ones. Even a girl who grew up in New Jersey with a modern upbringing had that dream, until she didn’t.
My name is Amira Ahmad. I am a 33-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim born in Saudi but raised in New Jersey. My parents, like every desi parent, raised us in the hopes that we would become doctors or engineers. I think I always knew from a young age that I was not going to be able to make my parents happy. There was always a nagging feeling deep inside of me that urged me towards something else, somewhere else, but it took me years to really understand what.
By the time I was out of high school, I had decided to major in Visual Arts, much to my parents’ disappointment. I only lasted one semester and took a year off which made things worse. This was not what they wanted at all, and even threatened to marry me off, especially my father. The year I took off to work and explore, however, helped me focus on myself.
During that time I decided to go back to school to become a teacher. In that time, I had also met someone that I knew my family would not approve of. Fast-forward three years, I was almost done with college and was single again. I had given up on finding someone on my own, leaving it up to my parents. Within a few months, I was introduced through family friends to a Pakistani Muslim man who was 8 years older than me. From our first meeting, I felt like I had actually met someone who was at an equal level as me. We understood each other; or so I thought.
Within six months of meeting we had decided to get married. There were a ridiculous number of red flags all around me, which I constantly ignored and pushed to the side. One of the main ones was that he was previously married, which would not be an issue if it were a normal situation. The problem was that he told me it was only for a visa and they were only friends. Not just that, but his family was in the dark about it all, and so he begged me to keep his divorce a secret from everybody. Three weeks before our wedding I found pictures, letters, and mail in his apartment, sitting around as if she lived there. I was dumbfounded; the thought that he had been lying to me this entire time ate away at me. I confronted him and gave him the ring back.
When I told my parents, they were upset. What invoked more of their worries and stress was the whole mentality of “what would people think.” The invitations had already been sent out, the hall was already booked, and cancelling it would put my parents’ reputation on the chopping block, and that is something they couldn’t risk. A few lengthy conversations and hugs later, the wedding was back on track. What can I say? I was naive and “love” makes you do stupid things. I thought if my parents thought he was good, then he must be good. I trusted them because I trusted myself less. I had made a lot of stupid decisions in my past so I let my parents guide me. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame my parents for any of this nor do I believe that trusting your parents’ guidance is wrong. I was 23 when I got married and did so willingly but I truly did not know what I was doing. When girls dream of their weddings, they think about the hair, makeup, outfits, music, decorations; the actual marriage is not in anyone’s thoughts. It is not at all like a dream or a month long party. It is real life and it is work. There is no self-help book that comes with the marriage certificate or nikkah.
We were having arguments before the wedding, during the wedding, during our honeymoon, and throughout the first few months. Three or four months into our marriage, we had a flight booked to Pakistan to visit his family and have another celebration there. About a week or so before the flight we had an argument so bad that it resulted in him hitting me. I broke down and tried to leave but he wouldn’t let me. I tried to lock myself in the bedroom and call my parents. He wouldn’t let me. When we had sort of calmed down I managed to call them, they were at my home within an hour. I was still hysterical but he was able to keep his cool and look as if nothing had happened. My parents brought me to the side and explained to the both of us that I was probably just having anxiety and stress about the upcoming trip to meet the rest of his family. I could not believe it. They didn’t believe me. They were taking his side. They thought I was crazy.Situations like that occurred again and again for the next five years. In that time we had a child who had to suffer through our arguments and fights. He never hit me again but the one time he did, was enough to convince me it could happen again. I asked him time and time again that we should try marriage therapy for both of our sakes but he refused. I tried one last time before I filed for divorce in 2014, but I realized it either had to be his stubbornness or the fact that he truly did not want to make things better. At this point I had begun working and was slowly saving up money on my own. He had kept me on a short leash financially to keep me under his control. One of the main topics of our disagreements was finance. He kept everything hidden from me, but I on the other hand, was too open and honest. I should have realized it earlier but I tried to make the relationship work for my son and for my family. Relationships, especially marriage, involve so much more than love. I felt like I had compromised my body and my career but not much had changed for him.
To make a long story short, I did end up getting divorced but only after fighting tooth and nail for it. It took four years of separation, a few therapy sessions, lots of arguments with my family, with him, and lots of lawyers and bills. He threatened to file for sole custody, to put me out on the street, to take away things he had bought for me, to ruin my career, ruin my reputation, and the list goes on. It took a long time to realize no one was going to save me. I had to save myself and fend for myself. Of course, when my family finally did get on board and realize his alcoholism and mental health issues were real, I had already begun my healing process. And honestly I am still healing. It takes a long time to recover from a 9-year marriage to someone who was raised in denial and depression.
My “why” has and will always be my son. He’s 7 now and he is finally seeing a happy, healthy, financially and mentally stable mother. This was not an overnight process. And to any other woman, desi or not, who is struggling, all I can say is that you will get there. It will take time and it is not always going to be easy. When is anything worth it ever easy? To desi parents, for the love of God, let your children breathe. We live in a different generation, a different world, than the one in which you all grew up in. We can still bestow culture and morals within our children without taking away their freedom and their passions.
I think I finally have a good relationship with my parents because they see how independent I am, how wonderful my son is, and how much I have matured over the years. This year, I came back to my first love, art, and have my own small business painting and doing art shows here and there. I started to travel the world which has always been another passion of mine and I have done several trips solo. It is so incredibly important to tend your own garden, find your passion, and do what makes you happy. The rest of the world can watch in awe or cry to deaf ears. If I can do it as a single mother, you can too.
My name is Amira Ahmad and this is my Project Why.