International Women's Day celebrated in South River

Domestic abuse survivor Samra Zafar, who is now an author and human rights advocate was the keynote speaker at an International Women's Day celebration in South River on March 8.

This year's theme was Embrace Equity and Zafar spoke about the importance of equity over equality before a sold out crowd of 125 people, the majority being women.

Zafar turns 41 next month and was 17 when she arrived in Canada from her native Pakistan to marry a man she had never met, who she had never seen a picture of and was 11 years older than her.

As a young girl in Pakistan it was explained to Zafar that her brashness and individuality were not acceptable behaviour and this would have to change.

Zafar wanted very much to attend university and recalled that on a day when she was doing her math homework her mother told the teenager “there's a marriage proposal for you from a man in Canada”.

Her mother added that her new husband would be Zafar's guardian and chaperone and that she would be able to fulfill her dream of attending a university in Canada.

Once in Canada and married it wasn't long before Zafar became pregnant and was told as a soon-to-be mother and wife she would not be able to go to school.

“But my mother-in-law said this was a good thing because now I wouldn't have to worry about anything,” she said.

However, that wasn't the reality.

“I lived in a dark world of abuse and oppression,” Zafar told her audience.

“This was my reality for years,” she said. “It was like a prison. I had no friends. I couldn't leave the house.”

She was refused admission to a high school in Mississauga because the principal told her as a pregnant teen she would not fit in well with the student body.

Not one to give up, Zafar took night courses for several years while looking after her family during the day and got a high school diploma.

Unable to land a job she saw an advertisement for a baby-sitting service and that gave her the idea to create her own service. She developed a very good clientele and made money which her husband took.

But unknown to the husband Zafar quietly hid some of the baby-sitting money and over several years had a stash of $2,500. She now had enough money to enter the University of Toronto.

Her family objected but quickly backed down when she threatened to shutdown the baby-sitting service. Fearful of losing all that easy money, her husband and mother-in-law gave in but told her to be quiet in class and don't participate in discussions.

“That's what I did at first but then I became more vocal and students started to notice me,” she said.

This was the start of Zafar becoming free because her fellow classmates began inviting her to join them for coffee.

“For the first time I was being treated with respect and attention,” she said.

Seeing a counsellor helped Zafar realize she had to divorce her husband for the sake of herself and her two daughters. When she threatened to leave in past instances Zafar was told she would be sent back to Pakistan.

“I believed that because I didn't know any better,” Zafar said.

No one told Zafar otherwise and being alone, she couldn't lean on anyone for help until enrolling at the U of T opened a new world for her. This awoke a realization in Zafar and she told the South River crowd “isolation is an abuser's best friend”.

Zafar left her husband, took her daughters with her and worked five jobs to make ends meet and to ensure she could continue going to school.

“This was hard, but the hardest part was the rejection I experienced by my family,” she said.

However the friends she made while living on campus housing more than made up for the loss of her family and she began to realize “I am not alone”.

Zafar took on challenges one day at a time and when she graduated as a top student at U of T, “I knew I couldn't stay quiet any longer” and she began pursuing activism.

This is Zafar's story but she emphasized it's the story of women around the world and if there is to be change “the first step is breaking the silence because (saying nothing) is the ally of the oppressor”.

Zafar says the change that needs to occur is to embrace equity and added there is a big difference between equality and equity. People assume if everyone is given the same thing, that it makes them all equal. But that's assuming everyone started from the same place and Zafar says that's not the case.

But one can achieve equity by giving individuals what they need to be successful which is different for each person because not everyone is the same.

Zafar's book 'A Good Wife' details the lies she was told and how she escaped a life she never chose. Zafar says sadly many under-aged marriages still take place around the world and they also occur in Canada and the United States.

Zafar freely admits she stayed in her marriage far too long because that unhealthy relationship created mental health challenges for her oldest daughter who is now 16.

She regrets not walking away from her marriage earlier but says she didn't know any better because of her own upbringing in Pakistan.

Zafar is now attending medical school in Toronto.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget