“I was told that because I am blind and a woman, I could not be independent or have high aspirations.”
Blog by survivor and campaigner Saliha Rashid
Saliha grew up feeling trapped and isolated. Her family watched her every move, controlling her to protect the family’s honour. Disabled women or those with long-term illness find it harder to access the justice and support they need when escaping abuse. She shares her experience to make sure that the voices of disabled survivors are heard.
There is no greater gift than freedom. When this is taken away from you, you come to truly appreciate its value.
I grew up in a community which operates an honour-based system, whereby the family and wider community’s reputation holds the upmost importance. It is a system where every action taken by a woman is scrutinised in case it is deemed to be dishonourable. Every aspect of my life, from the time I went to bed, the books that I read, the phone calls I made, were under constant control and monitoring. Living under this system also meant that I wasn’t allowed to go on school trips or have a phone until I was 18.
These are all simple things that are a typical part of growing up. But for my community they were all things that were seen as something a woman shouldn’t do.
At the same time, I was told that because I am blind and a woman, I could not be independent or have high aspirations. Instead, I was told that I would be reliant on my family for the rest of my life. In my community, disabled people, especially disabled women, are perceived to be incapable and voiceless, and all that they can expect from life is to be dependent upon their families. In contrast, I wanted to lead an independent life, to go out and explore the world. But instead I grew up feeling trapped and suffocated.
School was the only place where I could express myself and be who I wanted to be. I could explore the world through books and my studies, and for the first time in my life think freely. I knew that I didn’t want to live under constant control, but my controlling and abusive circumstances were all I had ever known. It had a big impact on my self-confidence and my self-esteem.
The first time I really acknowledged that what was happening to me wasn’t right was when I was in my mid-teens. I began to realise that there was another way of life when I saw other disabled people, at school, in the wider community and in the public domain, living independently. I saw them and thought: ‘Maybe I don’t have to live this way, maybe I can live independently too?’
I built up the confidence to speak out about what was happening at home and spoke to some of the staff at my school who I felt I could trust. But the people who could have done something about the abuse did not have the knowledge or expertise to help. It was clear that there was a lack of awareness about honour-based abuse as well as the issues around disability and how this can be used by the abuser to exacerbate the abuse. Whilst some staff were extremely helpful and provided a listening ear, others were not. I felt that some staff thought that I had exaggerated the extent to which my life was being controlled and as a result I felt as though they didn’t take it seriously.
Due to my disability, many professionals have assumed that the level of control I was experiencing was normal. Carers are generally held in very high esteem, and rightly so in most cases. Many people believe it is unthinkable that a carer would mistreat their disabled family member. Everyone assumes that they are acting in the disabled person’s best interest, but that might not always be the case. In my case, I’ve often been asked by professionals whether my family and community were just being overprotective. But there’s a clear difference. When someone is being overprotective, they have that person’s best interests at heart, whereas in my case, it was all done in the interest of the community’s honour.
At the age of sixteen, I tried to leave this honour system behind. I went to a women’s refuge. This left me feeling isolated, as I was in an unfamiliar city and, unlike my sighted counterparts, I was not able to go out and explore the new surroundings. I was told by the council that that it would take at least six weeks to organise a support package to meet my needs. I could see no way out of the loneliness and isolation. Due to the anxiety which resulted from my situation, I ended up in hospital. At the same time, I was under a great deal of emotional pressure from my family to return home. By that point, I thought that it couldn’t make me feel any worse.
My family said that they would change, that things would get better when I returned. But when I got home, I was told that it was me who had to change, that all the problems were with me. The abuse continued, and I made a second attempt to leave in 2011 and stayed with a family member. However, due to emotional blackmail and a lack of support, I returned home once more, feeling worthless and like a failure. By this point, I believed their claims about how my disability put me at a disadvantage and that I would be under their control for the rest of my life. I now realise that had statutory support been in place when I fled the abuse, I would not have returned.
During this time I completed my A-levels, I started a psychology degree at a local university. But the restrictions imposed upon me only intensified. I was made to provide justification every time I left the house and was asked to share my university timetable. This left me unable to participate in extra-curricular activities, which prevented me from taking part in the social and academic opportunities that I wanted to take advantage of.
The taunting comments about my disability continued and the feeling of worthlessness lead me to consider withdrawing from my course. But with the support and encouragement of university friends, I continued studying and decided to leave home for the third and final time in April 2012.
I moved into student accommodation and in my tiny room, I felt liberated. For the first time, my life was my own, but it was unfamiliar to me. It almost felt like a holiday. Having control over the basic aspects of my life is something I will never take for granted.
My family tried to emotionally blackmail me into returning home, but I gained inner strength and did not succumb to them.
The process of healing began when I took the reins of my life into my own hands.
I was inspired to work hard in order to become the successful person I was told I could never be. Now I have built a successful life free from abuse, I am working to help other survivors who are living in abusive situations similar to that in which I once found myself.
Now I am campaigning with Women’s Aid to bring out vital change for disabled survivors. I will be speaking at Women’s Aid’s public policy conference about how I want the government’s domestic abuse bill to recognise honour-based violence as a form of domestic abuse because if it isn’t named it isn’t going to be taken seriously.
There also needs to be greater awareness of how domestic abuse and honour-based violence affects disabled women as well as the additional barriers disabled women face when escaping the abuse. The bill must deliver mandatory training for all professionals who are working with disabled women. For disabled survivors to get the support they need to overcome the additional barriers they face, disabled women who are living in refuge must be prioritised by statutory services to receive the care packages they need. I know from my own experience that it could be the difference between a survivor returning to her abuser or rebuilding her life free from fear and abuse.
I now live a life of independence and choice. I graduated with a first class degree in 2014, and then completed a graduate diploma in law, after which I studied for a master’s degree. I am now at the beginning of a great career. As well as this, I enjoy travelling the world, which is my oyster!
The views expressed in this post are my own and do not represent any organisation with which I am associated, whether that be in a paid or unpaid capacity.
If you need support you can contact the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.womensaid.org.uk.