Many years ago, when I still lived in Belgium, a Nigerian woman I knew ran to my house barefoot. It was in the middle of winter.
We knew each other just well enough to say hello but we were not friends. She said she had had enough, her husband was both verbally and physically abusive and she needed to leave him. That afternoon, he had beaten her for the whateverth time and threatened to pour hot water on her because the kitchen was a mess. If she hadn’t escaped, she would have been badly burned. I offered to call a women’s shelter for her where she could stay for as long as she wanted to while deciding what steps to take next. She’d be able to find help there, I told her. She agreed but when I called, she refused to repeat the same things she said to me to “strangers.” They would not offer her a place unless she told them she was in physical danger. She would not report her husband to the police either because she did not want him punished. What if they throw him in jail? Tufiakwa! She would not call her parents to ask for help – even though they could buy her a return ticket home- because she did not want them to know she had failed after only a few years of marriage. How could she return to Nigeria even? What would people say? In fact, she did not want to leave him at all. She had changed her mind.
I wondered why if she didn’t want to be helped, she had reached out to me at all. After the stories she told me I was irritated that she would go back to her husband. But she did. And then she told him I had tried to get her into a shelter, tried to get him jailed, encouraged her to leave him. That I wanted her to become a divorcee, which apparently is the worst thing one could be. Odiegwu! Eventually, I would understand that she was more scared of the consequences of the help than of her husband’s abuse. As far as she was concerned, she was better off married than not, even if he beat her sometimes. Even if he was so controlling that she was not allowed to handle money. Or to watch movies he had not approved of. Or to talk to people he hadn’t permitted her to. She must have known that she would not leave him when she came to me, she just wanted a witness to her suffering. And once I became that witness, she and her husband made me a persona non grata. I realized that it embarrassed her to have told me because she had been taught that one did not discuss the affairs of a (bad) marriage with outsiders. And certainly not one for whom any form of abuse was unacceptable. For a long time, I resented her. In time, my anger and resentment made way for compassion. To exacerbate matters for this woman, she was in a foreign country without any source of independent income. How many women in her position, a friend asked me, would have the courage to leave?
Often, we think of women who stay on in abusive relationships – even in ones where their lives are in obvious danger- as women who have no options. Many times, “options” really mean no education and no independent source of income. So, when Ifeyinwa Angbo’s now viral video came out and she mentioned that she was a doctor, many could not get past that. How could a doctor, someone who on her own could even get a skilled migrant visa to Canada be a victim of repeated physical abuse? When Governor Ortom, with his Messiah complex irresponsibly intervened, publicly “reconciling” the victim and the abuser, a monster who sat on the sutures of his wife four weeks after her c-section, a man who reportedly beat her while she was pregnant, it was a sad reminder that the privileging of any marriage over none is deeply ingrained in our society. In 2016, Ronke Shonde, a banker was beaten to death by her husband, Lekan Shonde. According to her sister, the year before she died, she decided that she had had enough of Lekan’s physical and emotional abuse. Her pastor and a neighbor interceded for Lekan and changed her mind.
Ndi Igbo say that when a bad habit persists, it becomes tradition. Unfortunately, many of our women have been raised to accept that they occupy a binary space where they are either successes (married) or failures (single). Once married, these spend their lives ensuring that their feet do not slip no matter what has to be endured. Happiness, mutual respect, love: these matter less in the grand scheme of things than whether or not one can lay claim to be being a Mrs. Somebody. If they forget this, even for a minute and run to a neighbour’s house to ask for help or make a viral video post in the presence of their children outing their abusers, the bad education catches up with them or someone they respect mediates and they walk back into their abusers’ arms. Sometimes, the only way they ever leave is when, like Ronke, they are killed.
We need to re-educate our daughters. We need to let them know that marriage no be by force. You do not fight to stay in one until you’re carried away in a body bag. Marriage is not compulsory. It’s not an achievement. It’s not unbreakable. It’s reasonable to expect happiness in a marriage. Domestic violence is not normal. It isn’t “challenges that couples face.” We have to teach them that there is absolutely no reason to stay in a toxic marriage, not even if your state governor or pastor tells you to.
May 2021 bless us all with collective wisdom and understanding.