This article was written anonymously and submitted through Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, a Licensed Professional Counselor.
In light of recent events highlighting domestic violence in our ummah, there is an unspoken casualty in the war of domestic violence. Abusive spouses may also be abusive parents. Furthermore, an abused spouse may in turn lash out and abuse the children from all the built up frustration and anger within the marriage. This is is how it was in my home.
The bad beginning
Although pictures speak a thousand words, our family photos never spoke the truth of what went on behind closed doors. Our house had been built with sturdy walls, but our home lacked a true and strong foundation of love. Both of my parents immigrated to the United States and, like most immigrants, brought along their cultural baggage and mindset. Although I will never know objectively how their marriage was in the beginning, according to my mother my father was verbally and physically abusive towards her. Growing up, I watched my parents fight with such passion and intensity that I am surprised, but thankful, that neither of them killed the other (although my mother did threaten my father with various sharp objects during some of their disputes). Nasty words were tossed back and forth like a tennis match, each one trying to beat the other at the vicious game. Sometimes my siblings and I would stand up for our mother, resulting in our father telling us to shut up and stay out of it, even retaliating against us.
My parents’ disputes could and would start over anything and everything, although money and invalidating of feelings were two strong sparks. My mother believed divorce was not an option because she could not work and support all of us herself. My father did divorce my mother once in a fit of anger, but then asked for her back. He told me he loved my mother and would never want to divorce her as this would break our family apart. Despite the illusion that our family is together, it is broken.
This was the marriage upon which our family was built. Children were brought into this environment because, like many people, my parents never questioned their ability to be good role models nor pondered the responsibility that came with having kids. In fact, it’s a rite of passage – school, marriage and then children – and there is no question or deviation from this. As you might imagine, it was not a nurturing nor loving atmosphere to grow up in. Before we were old enough to understand or defend ourselves, we were thrown into the battlefield and became targets of violence and psychological warfare
Faces behind the masks
People are often shocked when they learn about a domestic violence case, when they discover a person’s true nature and their hidden actions within the confines of their house. The truth is, looks can be deceiving and there is no way to distinguish someone who is abusive from one who is not by their outward appearance. Usually, the only ones who know the real faces behind the masks are those being abused and anyone the victims choose to tell.
There are no tell-tale signs of abusive parents, dysfunctional families or “victims” of abuse. My parents are practicing Muslims who frequent Islamic events and outwardly show their devotion to Islam. My father prays Jumuah and both Fajr and Isha in the masjid. My mother watches religious programs, wears hijab, goes to Umrah whenever she can and is well known and well loved in our community. Our family spends Eid together, goes out to dinner together and even laughs together. We visit other families and other families visit us. None of us children are anti-social deviants; we all have friends and are active participants in society. We are all highly educated, having all graduated from college and some of us graduate school.
While outwardly we all seemed “normal”, as is typical of dysfunctional families, each on of us children had our “adapted roles”. Mine was that of the lost child, the one who stayed out of trouble and was mostly overlooked and ignored. Unlike my siblings who rebelled in their own ways and at different times of their lives, I remained a “straight-edge” Muslim. I never drank, smoked, did drugs, had friends of the opposite gender or premarital relationships. I earned good grades, never hung out with “the wrong crowd and, even if I argued it, I never stayed out past my curfew. As hard as I tried to be good, I was never good enough.
My parents treated me differently based on their moods. My father’s emotions vacillated between extreme highs (happiness, giddiness, etc) and extreme lows (seclusion, aggression, verbal abuse). He was never big on words of love or kindness, and the primary way he supported us was financially. He never really talked to us except to blame us for something or to insult us. When he was in a jovial mood, he would smile, sing and encouraged me to smile and be happy. To show how fluctuating his mood was, one time he hit me so hard and so many times with a slipper, it broke. Almost immediately after this, he joked that I would now have to buy him a new one. There were at least three times that his violence left marks on my face, leaving me to face the public with signs of his rage. If I was asked about what happened, I fabricated something about hurting myself. My mother scared me that from ever telling the truth, saying that the police would come arrest my father and take us away, creating a scandal in our family. I was also too ashamed to admit to anyone, even my closest friends, that my father physically abused me; I wanted to be a normal child with normal parents, not a victim to be pitied.
While my father was a raging bull, my mother was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding her abuse amidst kindness and affection. She was the “savior” against my father and had a very generous, sweet and giving demeanor when she was in a proper mood. I will not deny that she did many wonderful things for me and in fact, when she was nice, it was great to be with her. But, in a Jekyll/Hyde or Bruce Banner/Hulk fashion, when she unleashed her anger, it was explosive rage. Although she never hit me, I was a figurative punching bag on which she used insults, humiliation and expressions of anger instead of kicks and punches.
Despite “keeping my nose clean”, my mother still found reasons to unleash her anger at me. One day, after spending time with a known and trusted friend, I came home to hear my mother telling my father how I was trying to be rebellious like my siblings. It was between 10:30 and 11:00 pm, a time which I had come home before without any repercussions and for someone in their late 20’s, was not an “unGodly time” to come home at. When she heard me coming, she burst out of the front door without her hijab on, screaming at me that I was no longer her child, disowning me until the Day of Judgment and that she would put this in writing and send it to several shuyukh. She also locked the door and told my father not to let me in. Even if I was out doing evil things, I didn’t deserve that. No one does. Because this was my mother and because this behavior was common and accepted in our family and my parents’ culture, I didn’t see just how abnormal this was. Actions like these were always excused with “She was mad because…” or “Well you shouldn’t/should have done…”. I felt too hurt, hated and even partly responsible for her actions to be able to see how abusive she was. I felt that if if somehow, if I had been a better child, she wouldn’t have done or said that. I now see I could not control her behavior, only she could.
It was traumatic to see her behave in such a way and hurt to be the target of such horrible comments, and this is only one example of her pain-inducing words and actions. She teetered between kind and caring woman to a cruel and vicious woman. She would praise my siblings and I to her friends one minute and then say how she wished she would die so she wouldn’t see our faces again, that death was better for her than life with us. I couldn’t tell if she loved or hated me, if I was good or bad. I cannot explain to you the confusion or the pain that I went through, only that I am glad I finally see the truth for what it is.
Like other abusers, my parents wanted to exert their control over us. They yelled at me for being sad and for having individuality. Having autonomy was not allowed and success was simultaneously encouraged and deflated (sometimes by the same parent). My mother wanted us do to everything her way – from how we looked, how we dressed, what majors we chose, who we married, even what we named our children – and criticized us incessantly when we didn’t follow. My father tried to “straighten us out” through physical and verbal assaults when we spoke up for ourselves or didn’t do things exactly as he wanted.
Imams and shuyukh of Sunday school, Islamic lectures and Friday khutbahs told me constantly that parents deserved our utmost respect and unyielding obedience. And because they had heard the same lectures, my parents demanded this as well. It is a fact of life that children, more or less, emulate their parents’ behavior. Thus, through their actions, my parents taught me how to be defiant, angry, hateful, spiteful, resentful, disrespectful and aggressive, and simultaneously punished me for expressing these emotions and behaviors. This created a tug of war in my head, between wishing that someone would say I had the right to be treated kindly and believing that I was being rightfully punished for being a bad child. No one ever spoke of children’s rights or obligations of parents, so it was the latter that always won.
The ill effects of abuse
Growing up with abusive parents took a heavy and serious toll on me. From my childhood and even until now, the abuse has affected me in several facets of my life, mentally, physically and spiritually. I suffered from low self-esteem and had problems in my health and relationships, even with Allah. The abuse has affected my family as well – emotional problems, jealousy and spitefulness between siblings and emotionally incestuous relationships between parent and child developed – although they still choose to deny it.
…self-esteem and self-perception
In my ignorance and in response to the turmoil, I experienced extreme self-loathing and hated my life growing up. Parents are said to be a mirror of their children, and since my parents had plenty of negative things to say, I could only see myself as a terrible person. How could I love myself when my own parents, the people who brought me into this world and who were supposed to love me unconditionally, did not? Even if they told me they loved me (which they did not), they didn’t know how to show me they loved me. I felt hated as my father chased me in order to physically punish me and pointed out all my faults. My mother told me often how I was just like my father, whom I knew she carried a great disdain for. She grouped us both along with one of my siblings in the “bad guys” category. I felt there was something truly wrong with me, that I was just an awful person who didn’t deserve to be loved. I wanted to disappear from the world thinking that maybe, just maybe, if I was gone, someone would miss me and want me back…then I would finally feel loved and wanted. I felt like a burden on my family who would be better off without me. I hated being me which anyone reading this might understand how that could be. Only Allah heard me as I apologized for being such a bad child.
…relationship with the family
I wanted Allah to love me, I wanted to obey Him by being kind to and obeying my parents. Despite the fact that my father physically and verbally abused me, I still tried to be good to him. But, thanks in part to my mother’s comments about him, at some point in my life, my innocent childish love for my father changed to hate. I despised every single thing about him – how he ate, how he walked, how he talked. I hated that he still asked for and expected hugs and kisses from me even after the mean things he said and did to me. My mother perpetuated this idea in the way she fought with him; it always looked like he was the aggressor and she the victim.
The well-known hadith that one’s mother is more deserving of love and respect than one’s father encouraged me to put all my energy into loving and obeying her as best I could. Because she was the one who comforted me after my father attacked me and defended me against him, standing up for me, she was the only source of comfort for me. Thus, I attached myself in an unhealthy manner to her and we became enmeshed; when she was happy I was happy and when she was mad or sad, I couldn’t have a good time. I tried with all my power to make her happy and to make her pleased with me. It was because of this intense codependency that I have such a challenge in healing from her infliction; I gave her my all and she rejected, depreciated and destroyed it.
The dysfunction permeated beyond our parents’ relationships with each other or with me. My siblings and I have an uneasy relationship with each other that is affected, one way or another, by one or both parents. For example, one sibling cut ties with the other because of issues the other had with our mother. Another still believes our father to be a good father and pushes me to do things such as wish him a happy birthday or take him out for Father’s Day. One sibling and I butted heads because they labeled me the abuser, claiming my mother’s harshness and nonacceptance of my good deeds was in response to my antagonism.
…relationship with Allah
Because our relationship was borne out of blood and mentioned several times in the Quran, one of the favorite weapons that my mother used to validate her stance was religion. Similar to how abusive men misuse verses from the Quran, my mother misused the verses regarding treatment of parents, telling me how Allah would punish me and that if she were to die displeased with me I would be damned to Hell for all eternity. I was told several times that I had no iman in my heart, that I only do things out of fear of Allah’s punishment and that if I were a true mu’min, I would not be so rude with my parents. When bad things would happen to me, she told me that Allah was angry with me and punished me for what I had done. I believed it.
While we all doubt whether we are good enough in the sight of Allah, whether our deeds will be accepted or whether we are sincere, my mother spiritually abused me so intensely that I doubted if Allah even loved me. I thought “How could Allah love someone like me, someone who was so insolent and hated by their parents?” I asked Allah to forgive me for being such an insolent person and for being so bad to my parents. Today, I acknowledge that this was projection of her own feelings of herself, but the pain of hearing that come from my mother was extreme.
…relationship with the community
The shame and guilt I felt affected not only my relationship with myself and my Lord, but how I was with the community. For one, I felt as if I was wearing a scarlet letter “V” for being a victim of domestic violence. Although no one knew, I felt I was different and that no one would understand what I was going through. Other people had seemingly good relationships with their parents and had parents who were apparently loving and kind. I did not know for sure if this was true, but no one talked about it and neither did I. I felt isolated in my community. I didn’t have anyone to talk to and didn’t know if anyone cared or would even believe me about what was going on in my house if I told them. With my parents being such upstanding members of the community, it would be hard to convince someone that they were actually unkind and unfit parents.
Another issue was the hypocrisy I felt. I was an outwardly practicing Muslim who went to MSA meetings, and treated people with as much kindness as I could. People enjoyed my company and liked me. But as I looked into the mirror that was my parents’ eyes, I believed this was only because no one, except my parents, knew the real me. In fact, my mother told me that I was so nice to the people outside my house while being so ill-mannered to those in my home. At the time, I didn’t believe she would say something that wasn’t true, especially something so hurtful. Like most children, I thought the best of her and the worst of myself and with the community loving her as well, I took her guilty verdict to heart.
As abused children grow older, they too may choose to marry and have children of their own. No one will deny that when you marry someone, you marry their family. When you marry their family, you also marry their problems and toxicity. When these issues are not addressed or acknowledged, they cannot be resolved. They seep into the core of the marriage, into the hearts of the individuals. It affects how they deal with each other and ultimately how they deal with their children. People joke about the “evil in-laws” and make the same comments about treating them with kindness, respect and humility. When the in-laws are abusive and have a skewed view of reality, it is no joke.
To avoid disclosing any identifiable details, I will not speak of my own or my siblings’ marriages, but will instead refer to a couple that I know who live in an abusive home. The mother/mother-in-law behaves in a similar fashion to my mother, leading me to believe that she also has a mental illness. The husband (her son) believes that to be a good son, he must do anything and everything in his power to please his mother, even though nothing he ever does is good enough in her eyes. She, too, uses Islam’s emphasis on serving parents as a means to get her way. She speaks nastily to both her son and daughter-in-law, both of whom feel the detrimental effects of living with an unstable and abusive person. Both are victims of abuse and do their utmost to please their perpetrator. For example, after a day of cleaning the house in hopes of pleasing her, she made a comment about how dirty the TV was, saying how she would never have kept her house in this shape. Even though the wife recognizes the abusive behavior of her mother-in-law, she does not know what to do or how to act. Her husband believes his mother needs to be obeyed and feels powerless to say or do anything to stand up for himself or his family. There are young children in this marriage who will, unless something changes, grow up seeing their parents treated harshly and possibly be treated in a similar manner themselves.