x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Those closest to you can be those who hurt you the most

When we were schoolgirls we laughed about it; now we know that it was domestic abuse.

I wish I knew then what I know now.

It was almost 15 years ago, but it feels just like yesterday. At the sound of the bell announcing the break, I could always find my "gang" of friends sitting near the staircase on the same spot on the floor, which was often quite dirty, at my Saudi girls school.

If we caught anyone else sitting there, we would soon bully them to make room for our tomboyish group of five.

We were a mix of backgrounds, with mothers from across the Arab and western world, all with Arab fathers of Saudi, Syrian, Lebanese or Egyptian roots. We were products of East meets West and yet, despite our varied backgrounds, we shared a common secret.

We would joke and show off our bruises, almost as a defence mechanism, as I look back at it now.

One Saudi friend in particular always had scars and bruise marks on her neck, inflicted by her father who, we would learn later, was also sexually assaulting her on a regular basis.

Another friend had a male cousin who lived in her complex who abused her; a third suffered at the hands of both parents who regularly beat her for the silliest of things, such as when she didn't want to finish her dinner.

We all know teenagers can be rebellious and difficult, but abuse to make them submit to rules is always wrong. And it is always someone in the family, often someone closest to you, who causes the most hurt.

While things are slowly changing, parents beating their children is quite widespread in this part of the world. There are growing awareness campaigns in the UAE and elsewhere in the Arab world, telling parents to talk to their children instead of hitting them. The same message should apply to every member of the family and beyond.

But back then, we never spoke to adults about it. We just pretended that it was OK.

It wasn't a coincidence we were known as an aggressive group, and were always called upon whenever there was a conflict, whether in sports or in an actual fight. Bullying in Arab schools, especially among girls, is a whole topic in itself. Often, we would be asked for help, and we would end up bullying the bully.

All the victims' stories are different, but in the end all abusers ultimately just want to break someone's spirit. For some of my friends, that is exactly what happened.

I shiver when I think of what some of these young women went through and how, years later, some ended up marrying abusive husbands.

Others avoided any form of abuse because they remembered the hurt, but for some it is a vicious cycle repeating the same patterns that are all they have ever known.

"It is OK Rym, we are passionate people, some form of violence is bound to be in our homes," a childhood friend told me, laughing it off. She admits her husband slaps her and the children "from time to time".

I recall those dismissive laughs from our youth.

Where I live now, there is a neighbouring family that is mired in abuse. It seems to be true wherever I go, and I have moved around a lot, so it is proof that abuse is not limited to one nationality, religion, age, social status or even gender.

In my current neighbourhood, for a while I thought it was the husband abusing the wife, but then I actually saw her beating him in public as they were leaving the building. The way he was huddled in the corner as she punched away was something I had never seen. They are an Egyptian couple with children and, yes, the children were watching as well.

When another couple tried to intervene, both wife and husband shouted at them to mind their own business. The wife said something like: "Prophet Mohammed commanded Muslim men to be kind to women, nothing about being kind to men."

I really don't know the solution to these many forms of abuse, but I do know that it has to start with the individual. When I am angry, I take it out by sweeping the floor. That, at least, could be a start.