A moment of courage led to a lifelong commitment to speak out for women and girls.
“I reached deeper into my little heart and spoke from there.”
I was barely a teenager when I first stood up to my father. It was a typical Sunday afternoon for our family. We were in our house with the doors to the outside locked and the keys in a "safe place" known only by my father. We had come to accept being locked up and isolated from family, friends, visitors, and neighbors as ‘normal'.
I was having lunch with my elder sister and my kid brother… or maybe it was dinner. It was the last meal we ate that day. Luckily, our meal had been prepared before the argument began. On days like this when our parents were having a disagreement, no one would dare enter the kitchen to prepare a meal.
We always knew what the outcome of a disagreement was in our house. Dad always won. And we knew what he did to make his opponents succumb to him, so the food in our mouths was mixed with that bitter taste of fear. We weren’t sure whether it was the food or the fear that made our little stomachs churn painfully. We ate in silence. We couldn’t bear to look up from our plates; we wouldn’t dare.
Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of Dad from the corner of my eye as he sprang across the sitting room headed in Mum's direction. She raised her arms in self-defense as she let out a helpless whimper. But he ignored it. As usual, he ignored it.
A prisoner in her marriage
My mother’s parents married her off because they couldn’t afford to send her to college. It was common for parents in this situation to marry their daughter to the first person who promised to send her to school and send money back to the family from time to time. Mum was more than 20 years younger than Dad.
Parents were always on the lookout for the most educated males. If they found one they liked, they would give their consent for him to marry their daughter without checking out his character or considering their daughter's feelings for the man. It brought honor to a girl’s family if other villagers knew that the daughter married a man who went to school.
Mum was quickly married off to my highly intelligent father who turned out to be a monster. She moved with him to the city, where he sent her to school not because he believed in the empowerment of women but as payment of her bride price. He always swore to her that he was only keeping his promise because it was expected of him. He told her that she would never be allowed to work, or pursue a career, or go out, or have friends. Dad was the only one in our family who worked, and his income was nothing close to what we needed to do well in life.
No Longer Silent
The bone of contention on that Sunday afternoon when I stood up to my father was that he had lost his job again, as he often did due to his violent temper. This time, he was dishonorably dismissed without any benefits.
At that time Dad was around 60 years of age with deteriorating health. We three kids were still too young to work. This meant that we would starve unless Mum were allowed to go out and work.
When my father had had enough of Mum’s reasoning, he sprang across the room and grabbed her head. I heard a loud thud as he bashed her head against the wall and proceeded to drag her by the hair to their bedroom.
And that was it for me.
"Let her go already!" I screamed as I rose to my feet, tears rolling down my face.
In the piercing silence that followed, all eyes were on me. Our culture forbade a woman from interrupting a man, let alone raising her voice in a reprimanding tone. Traditionally, a woman is expected to give the man room to vent in whatever manner he chooses, and then later to present her case (if she must) on her knees after she has fed him well and catered to his ego. This imbibed modesty in a woman, the elders taught.
My father was a man feared even by men, so I understood the shock in the eyes staring back at me. But it wasn't a thirst for heroism that had made me stand up to him for the first time in both our lives that afternoon. It was the need to stand up for equality of rights for the more vulnerable sex.
"You must never do it again; he's your father!" Mum said.
Father?! Sincerely, though, what did the word even mean?
It is up to us
I was scared that day, but the suppressed feelings in that room needed a plurality of voices to speak against injustice. It was up to us.
My father's lips quivered with rage as he slowly walked towards me, fixing me with a piercing gaze that tore at the roots of my courage.
"You're a fool!" he breathed, clenching his fists.
My voice shook, and I felt my bladder release in fear. But I reached deeper into my little heart and spoke from there.
"An ally. That's all she is trying to be. That's all that every woman is trying to be. To save us. And you! This family! Why can't you just accept that she is just as intelligent and creative? What are you teaching your son by doing this? How can he be a leader like this? We don't want your pedestal, and we don't want to fight with you. We are not strong enough. We just want to be nurturers. The least you can do is respect that ability that was put in us by nature and empower us to perform our function as mothers, caregivers. She doesn't deserve this. This has to stop, we can't take it anymore! Dad, just stop this, please! Don't beat us and lock us up anymore!"
"You've been reading, I see!" my father mused. Then he barked, "Lie on the floor, face down, now! And wait for me."
He charged into the backyard of our house to cut canes from the aged Dogon Yaro tree. He loved his canes fresh. He would strip the canes bare so that as he slashed my body with it, the moist pieces would burn through my skin and bury themselves in my flesh. It's how we were often punished back then. I still have scars from such beatings.
I obeyed and lay face down where I was standing. No one lay with me; no one stood with me; no one spoke up for me; neighbors kept their distance. I shook as I wept. I felt lonely, but the point had to be made. I was ready to take the beating and never apologize.
I did not apologize on that day, nor will I ever apologize again for standing up to those who make violent moves against a woman or child.
A turning point
In the weeks that followed, our house was like a graveyard, and it seemed I had failed my mother. Within the month, though, Mum announced to us that Dad had released her to look for a teaching job in the schools in our vicinity. She got the job, and we kids were also pulled from school to work.
Although we were working outside our home, Dad imposed a curfew on our movements and ordered that all our salaries be remitted to him. He gave us 10% of our salaries as pocket money, and he gave Mum money to buy some food. He didn't care whether the money he gave was enough or not. We had to obey.
For the rest of his life, my father hated me. For the rest of his life, he punished me for speaking out like I did that Sunday afternoon.
While my father never changed, we did. That day became a turning point for me.
We were at the early stages of winning our fight for survival, equality, and empowerment. Inside the house, Dad made sure we were isolated one from the other to "prevent a mobilization." So when we were outside the house or on the way to work, we encouraged one another, mother and children. We mobilized, not for a coup, but to empower ourselves and plan for the family. We began to get creative, though it was all hush-hush.
Mum’s salary was obviously not enough to get us through the month. So we kids had to do other manual jobs (which we kept secret from our dad, of course) to earn some more money for food, medication, and the upkeep of the house. Because we had little education, we kids couldn’t get well-paying jobs. So we had to do a lot of little jobs here and there to make money. It was exhausting, but we were glad that we could support Mum.
Mum secretly taught us how to save so that we could enroll for evening lessons before our curfew timeso we could sit for the high school leaving certificate exams. It was a very difficult period of our lives. It grieved us to see our peers move on to enjoy better lives and fulfill their dreams while we watched our dreams die (even with all our hard work). But we couldn’t just fold our hands and die.
Since the day I stood up to my father, I have never kept silent about domestic violence anywhere I have come across it. From that singular experience, I learned courage in the face of fear. I learned sacrifice. I learned that to stop violence against women and children, we must stop the silence. And yes, this may require putting our lives on the line.
If you think this is too much to risk, I understand your reluctance. But then, you have to ask yourself: Would you rather share the suffering of the oppressed or the crime of the oppressor?
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share,and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller!Learn more.