Nigeria declared a state of emergency on sexual and gender-based violence last year following the rape and murder of 22-year-old Vera Uwaila Omozuwa. It was an intervention needed for decades that could have helped many survivors of rape escape a similar or worse fate to that of this week’s subject of our Women’s History Month #Herstory series who was forced to marry her abuser.
Silence is often peddled as the worst thing that happens to survivors of sexual violence, but that is just the tip of an iceberg whose bottom is in hell.
100s of rape cases go unreported in Nigeria, many of these are resolved within the family. This culture of resolution is well known across Nigeria, what isn’t as widely known is that in cases like that of 34-year-old Samirah Musa’s 100s of survivors – many in Northern Nigeria, end up in a forced marriage with their abusers to “salvage the family name.”
She opens up to us about how that happened, the rationale behind it, and what it is like to live with your abuser for 11 years in the name of holy matrimony. It was not an easy conversation to have, but it was a necessary one.
I will let you lead on this one. Please begin wherever is most comfortable for you.
You know that thing they do in movies where they say following a traumatic event, “It is all a blank,” I always roll my eyes because I know what privilege it is to forget. I will give an arm and a leg to forget, but 12 years after and the memory is fresh in my head, I haven’t forgotten, I haven’t moved on and I sometimes just resolve that I can’t. I punished myself a lot the first few years of my marriage because of how resentful I was of my husband, my family, and myself, and I struggled to understand why I did it because this after all was a man I deeply loved once.
Were you dating?
It was more than that. He was my Islamic school teacher from when I was 16, he is 15 years older you see. I remember I developed a crush for him at some point in my later teens, and he was very mature about it and made me feel at ease but also understand that we couldn’t work because in his word, “You are like my little sister.”
This is where I blamed myself for a long time. I was a naïve and indoctrinated 18-year-old. There is a Hadeeth reported in Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari that advised men on the best woman to marry, it says, “A woman may be married for four things: her wealth, her lineage, her beauty and her religious commitment,” the prophet then said, “Seek the one who is religiously committed, may you prosper.” I took it to heart and this man was the perfect embodiment of religious commitment in my eyes.
I persisted in pursuing him. I wrote lengthy letters explaining why I thought we had to make it work.
Love, while it was important, was not top on my list even though I loved him immensely. He eventually caved in after I got admitted into the Federal College of Education, Kano. We started seeing a lot in school because he also went there.
Then he began changing and started coming onto me, asking to hold hands when we talked, asking for a hug before we parted, and eventually asking that we go to his place to watch videos of religious lectures and just debate over the merits and demerits of the Islamic teacher’s position on certain religious matters. It was everything I saw myself doing with a lifetime partner. I fell for it.
He gave me many religious bases for these things, explaining that in the eyes of Allah because we vowed we’d marry each other in due course there is nothing wrong with what we were doing. I needed to hear this because Islamically even seeing parts of the body of a woman who isn’t your Muharram is wrong, but he was the teacher and I the student.
Then one day after a visit and heated argument on what we both agreed was an extreme position on the Hijab by Sheikh Gumi but couldn’t agree on how extreme, he asked to hug farewell and I hugged him – it was a ritual by then, but that hug lingered for too long. I looked up to ask what was going on and he leaned in for a kiss, which I gave in to because I figured what was the harm. I was shaking by that time because rather than a peck he had gone full face-gobbling French kiss on me and I could feel his erection against my body. I pulled back and wanted to break away but he held on and *sighs.*
An eternity later I was curled up next to him naked as a newborn and crying my eyes out. For various reasons. I wanted that, but in our marital bed, not that way. I knew we had sinned, grievously, and he agreed and even tossed in a few Hadeeth that enjoins men and women who are of age to desist from being alone together because “Satan will be 3rd in their company.”
He advised that we repent and desist from meeting till after we marry, and promised he will send his parents to my parents to arrange the marriage as soon as possible.
How did that go? Seeing as you were both students.
He worked. He was doing his B Ed program as a teacher, where I was running my NCE program. That notwithstanding, he didn’t send his parents to meet mine, and part of me was relieved because after that encounter all the awe I had for him as a pious man had vanished. I was ready to move on and forget him. Then I found out I was pregnant.
To say my world came crashing down will be an understatement. I was shattered and went to meet him in tears. His response was that we get an abortion quietly because we couldn’t marry while I was pregnant. That too is Islamically unacceptable, but so is murder, which is what I believed abortions to be back then, so I refused.
Was any of your parents aware of this?
Most certainly not. And that is another thing I blamed myself for. I wouldn’t tell either of my parents for 7 months. I was sure if they found out they would kill me, so it was a matter of self-preservation. I don’t think I had a plan beyond hoping on a prayer that he will arrange the marriage before I began showing so we could pretend my pregnancy happened in wedlock. When that didn’t happen at 5 months I died daily knowing what was to come of shame and public disgrace.
Then I developed complications 7 months into my pregnancy that led to hospitalization and my family finding out I had been pregnant for 7 months. It was a devastating time for everyone. The pious daughter ending up with pregnancy out of wedlock, and a 7 months pregnancy for that matter.
It got worse.
Apparently, my fetus had died prematurely inside me and I didn’t know because I knew nothing of pregnancies. I underwent an operation and my family buried the fetus and would have buried the matter too had it not gone out. They resolved that the best way to save me would be to force the father of my dead child to marry me, because “no one will marry a used woman.”
Did you not have any say in this?
None whatsoever. To paraphrase my mother, I lost my right to choose when I opened my legs to a man I wasn’t legally wedded to. I couldn’t tell her he raped me, who would have believed me after I kept it to myself for 8 months?
Long story short he was forced to quickly put together resources and marry me. It was a solemn affair as were the days and months that followed our marriage.
What were they like? Those days and months.
Confusing. Terrifying. Isolating.
For the first few days we just stewed in shared resentment. I for his betrayal of the person I thought he was, him for ‘seducing him’ and getting him into a fix he wasn’t prepared for and ‘smearing his good name.’
We turned to religion after weeks of resentful live-in separation, for that’s what our marriage was at the time. We began repenting together and trying to build back the love we must have once had for one another. It worked for a while.
I thought it did anyway. I dismissed so much at the time. My anxiety every time I was returning from school. My increased heart rate each time night approaches and with it the possibility that my husband would seek my sexual company.
In case you are thinking I could have just said no to my husband’s sexual requests, there was this Hadeeth always at the back of my mind where the Prophet said, “If a man calls his wife to his bed and she refuses, and he spends the night angry at her, the angels of Allah will curse her until morning.” Add that to the fact that I knew him to have no regard for my resistance. I let all of it slide because I had no choice as far as I was concerned, “used woman” that I was.
Where are your parents in all this?
To this day my relationship with my parents – parent now since my father died 6 years ago still cold to me, has not recovered. We have been trying to rebuild with my Mother since my Dad’s passing. It hasn’t been the same, however, because I am still married to this man who I resent, this man who resents me, and I look at my mother and remember the dozens of times I tearily begged her to hear me out and she shut me up instead and I am newly resentful of her.
How do you feel now? Do you see healing happening?
Talking about healing. I was watching Watchmen – a film by Zack Snyder, a year ago and there is this character who was almost raped by a colleague but who then later went back to the same man and it was how she got pregnant with her child. She said when she finally told her daughter this and I am paraphrasing, “I forgive him because he gave me you.”
I have had 3 kids for this man, I look at them every day and it breaks my heart the amount of hypocrisy they will grow up in and the lies they may never know the truth of. Above all, quite unlike Zack Snyder’s character, I look at them and I don’t feel forgiveness in my heart, just a fresh surge of resentment. At myself for never having the balls to leave something that still drains me, something my husband still refuses to let me live down.
I don’t see healing happening, not while he lives or I have to live with him.
What do you mean he has refused to let you live it down?
Per Islam’s demand, I can do nothing without my husband’s approval – that includes going out. He has invoked that for the last 11 years to limit my freedom to move around, to make friends, to pursue a career, to do anything really.
I stood up to him once maybe 5 years ago and he mentioned that he was doing me a favour by keeping me locked up because it is easier for him to trust me this way. His reason he said is that “if you could give yourself so easily to me, what is to say you won’t do the same with other men?” This is a man who forced himself on me. It broke something in me and obliterated any chance at forgiveness. Yet I am trapped with him because I can’t divorce him. On what grounds can I request for a divorce? Even if I have grounds to request for divorce I have been economically dependent for so long the mere thought of starting from scratch terrifies me.
It is just this endless loop of pain for now.