By Hasnaa Mokhtar, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate, Center for Women’s Global Leadership
About the Author
Hasnaa Mokhtar is the Postdoctoral Associate at Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership. She holds a Ph.D. from Clark University and her dissertation focused on narrative power and the invisible trauma of gendered violence in Kuwait. She is a scholar, researcher, and activist, with expertise on the Arabian Gulf, focusing on narratives of Muslim survivors of gender-based violence. Hasnaa’s writings have been published in mainstream media and in academic journals. Previously, Hasnaa served as the executive director of the Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester, MA, and more recently as the special program director at Peaceful Families Project.
February 28, 2021, 5:30ish P.M.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“My husband just threatened to slaughter me. I’m shaking and I need help.”
The operator asked me to remain on the line. She transferred me to the police department in Vaudreuil-Dorion; a suburb of Greater Montreal where I have been living for almost two years. My soon-to-be-ex and I chose to settle in Canada after I finished my doctoral research in Kuwait to enjoy the benefits of affordable childcare and a “family support system.” My marriage had been on the rocks since Malik was born in July 2015. I felt lonely in this union, but I poured my heart and soul into my studies and my little one. Was I in denial, hoping that he might change his aggressive ways? Did I sympathize with him and find excuses for his angry outbursts and silent treatment? Did I love him? Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. But what I sure know is that familiar feeling of being a hypocrite. The endless mental arguments I had with myself. I am a feminist. I served on a hotline to support survivors. I know the danger signs and warnings of abuse. I should have left earlier. But it is not that simple now, is it? Exactly like when one of the survivors I interviewed in Kuwait said succinctly,
“Then he started hitting me. I had to remain quiet. Of course, I had to. I didn’t know what to do. Here’s the difference. A licensed trainer in anti-violence, what do I do? A licensed trainer in human development, what do I do? I train people and give lectures, and now I am being violated. What do I do? I didn’t know what to do.” (Interview, FB24)
My side of events is that I sought help for the entirety of our marriage to overcome my abandonment issues, past trauma wounds, and insecurities. I gave this relationship every bit of my being to make it work until giving scared my soul. I begged him to join me in healing. But in his eyes, everything was my fault. I asked his family to intervene. But when things escalated to a restraining order in fear of him killing me and my child, I was the one to blame. I should’ve been patient. I should’ve been wiser. I shouldn’t have exposed the family’s dirty laundry. But that’s not all. There’s what I said and did. Then there’s what he said and did. And then there’s what the Canadian government said and did. As I struggled to overcome the fright and trauma of being threatened with death while looking after my little one, I had to call shelters, support services, and lawyers to obtain information about my situation. Language was a barrier since the official language in Quebec is French. My citizenship status was a barrier since he revoked his sponsorship for me to become a Canadian permanent resident one week after I called 911. The immigration officer told me there was nothing they could do to reopen my file that took two years of paperwork and almost $3,000 of paid fees. “You’re illegal,” the immigration officer said and advised me to reapply. In a country that ranked 19 out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index and prides itself on maternity leaves, I got abused by the system of care. As Sameena Mulla explains in her book, “Many studies have documented the tendency of formal interventions to introduce more suffering into victims’ lives even as they attempt to care for the victim” (Mulla 2014, p. 5).
I am in a safer and better place now. I pushed myself to complete my Ph.D. and applied to multiple jobs with unconditional support from exceptional feminists in my life. I moved back to the United States in August after landing a dream job that allows me to do the work at the heart of my calling: anti-violence education.
But I look back at what could have been and get angry. When the police arrived to arrest him, they told me that they would release him because he had no criminal history. Because years of mental anguish and verbal terror don’t leave marks on the body and can’t be documented. Throughout the legal proceedings that followed dealing with the Crime Victims Assistance Centres in Quebec and the prosecutor, I felt I was the aggressor and he was the victim. The system worked better in his favor. It didn’t matter that every time I stepped outside accompanying my son to his bus stop or playing with him, I was petrified that his dad might be hiding behind a bush or a car and would hurt us. It didn’t matter that I had no access to financial, legal, or mental health support and had to use my personal savings to hire a lawyer because pro bono lawyers put me on months-long waiting lists. It didn’t matter that it remains his right to arrange for visitations with his child despite the terror he put us both through. It didn’t matter that at any given moment, he still could slaughter me. Because he simply can. Until when?
 Personal interview with a survivor in Kuwait as part of doctoral dissertation research in 2018-2019.