'A Good Wife' is Samra Zafar's story of leaving an abusive marriage without leaving Islam

Samra Zafar was 16 years old when her mother interrupted her math homework in Pakistan to tell her about a marriage proposal from Canada. Laughing, she asked what her mom was talking about.

“She didn’t crack a smile, and I realized she was serious,” Zafar wrote in a 2017 essay for the Toronto Star, which tells her story of escaping an abusive marriage in a foreign country and fighting to attend university to give her daughters a better future.

After the essay went viral, publishers asked Zafar to tell her full story.

A Good Wife, published by Harper Collins Canada on Mar. 5, is Zafar’s remarkable story of rising out of abuse and cultural conditioning to believe in herself, without losing her faith in the goodness of Allah.

If you think you already know about domestic violence or arranged child marriages, never mind. Zafar will take you deeper, inside her own mind conflicted, teetering, calculating, reprogramming, and finally, fiercely triumphant. Her story will resonate with abuse survivors from many religious and cultural backgrounds, but particularly gives a peek inside a conservative Pakistani Muslim community settled in the West, seemingly normal from the outside. Any empathetic reader will wonder how many neighbors may be quietly suffering the same abuse Zafar endured.

On the book’s cover, 17-year-old Samra Zafar sits in her wedding attire.

On the book’s cover, 17-year-old Samra Zafar sits in her wedding attire.

As a teenager and oldest of four daughters, Zafar excelled in school and imagined becoming a doctor. Her father had no formal education but encouraged his girls to reach for the sky, letting Zafar take her younger sisters shopping alone to teach them to be independent in a country where many women rely on male chaperones. Her mother taught Urdu, the native language, in an elementary school.

When her mother’s close friend proposed her then 28-year-old brother marry Zafar, Zafar’s parents hesitated, but after meeting his family in Karachi, weighed the young man as a decent choice. He worked in the computer industry in Canada and promised to allow Zafar to continue her education there in whatever city she chose, even bringing her brochures of colleges.

Zafar, still finishing high school, was scared. But she was drawn by the promise of university opportunities in Canada, didn’t want to embarrass her family. And she had become the envy of her peers. To marry at a young age was seen as the fast-track to female bliss. Though Zafar simply wanted the chance to study, she also feared ending up like some of her teachers who married late in life to much older men.

Above all, Zafar wanted to follow God’s will and be a good girl. The night before her wedding, on her bedroom balcony, she prayed to Allah that her husband would treat her well and let her follow her dreams. But she had doubts.

“As I was telling God that I was putting myself in his hands, my eyes were following the metalwork below me. Would it be possible to climb down?” Zafar writes.

Her mother feared for her safety (and reputation). Zafar had already endured sexual touching at ages 4 and 11, the latter by an imam, and increasing sexual harassment during her teenage years. She told her daughter that the marriage proposal was a gift from Allah, his way of keeping her out of danger. “If you say no, you will be showing your lack of faith in Allah, and you’ll be surely punished,” Zafar remembers her mother saying.

Her father was more reluctant. After the engagement but before the marriage, he asked if she wanted to back out, assuring her it would be okay to cancel. But she didn’t want to bring the family dishonor.

So she married and moved to Canada at age 17. For a few months, she was happy with her husband, and with no knowledge of birth control, became pregnant with a baby girl. The marriage quickly turned sour when her mother- and father-in-law moved into the home, expecting their daughter-in-law to serve them. Zafar was not allowed to leave the house, learn to drive, carry pocket money, or protest their requests, much less attend college. She endured years of physical, emotional and verbal abuse from her mother-in-law and husband, who often called her a whore and a b**** and became increasingly violent, even while she was pregnant. Her mother-in-law used the Koran to justify her son hitting his wife. Zafar’s husband also forced her to wear a hijab, even though she didn’t wear one in Pakistan, and slapped her if strands of hair fell out. He installed spyware to track Zafar’s every conversation online. At one point, she prayed for Allah to take her life.

In short, Zafar defeated huge obstacles. With a baby, she took courses to complete 13 years of school required for Canadian college admission, and never gave up, despite severe psychological abuse telling her she was not worth anything. She problem-solved her way into earning money through an at-home daycare service and eventually started taking classes part-time from University of Toronto, with a second child.

One day, Zafar threatened to call 9-1-1 as her husband approached angrily. He replied by yelling, “Talaq, talaq, talaq,” the Arabic word for divorce that some ultra-traditional Muslims believe instantly divorces the man speaking from his wife.

After that, an imam said Allah would forgive them once and they could stay married. But when Zafar did decide she could “make it” without her husband, she used the talaq judgment against him. The same imam, after learning of her abuse, pronounced them divorced in the eyes of Allah. Her husband had always seen himself as the defender of their faith, and Zafar used that against him to go through with a legal divorce.

Zafar’s journey is really about longing to love and be loved. As a teen girl, she wanted to fall in love, and an arranged marriage to an abusive man robbed her of that chance. She also wanted to belong. The biggest obstacle keeping her in a cycle of abuse was simply feeling like a foreigner in Canada, not knowing who to turn to. When she called women’s helplines, she often wanted to speak to a Muslim woman who could understand her faith dilemmas. During her separation from her husband, she began attending classes at a mosque to better understand the Koran’s teachings.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a mosque or other faith community but the support of the university staff that rebuilt Zafar’s confidence in herself. She balks at how generous and kind strangers from the student union center were to help her find a subsidized apartment and babysit her kids in their office while she attended court hearings. She writes with wisdom and vulnerability.

Today, Zafar is a popular speaker on gender-based violence, with a TEDx talk on the topic. She also speaks on collective resilience, leadership, inclusive workplaces, youth and human rights, mental health and more. Already, she’s having an impact. One Pakistani man with a 17-year-old daughter wrote to her that after reading her essay, he decided to cancel her wedding and sponsor her to attend university first instead.