Friday, November 2, 2012

The Domino Effect

Every now and then, I am asked by different organizations to give a talk about domestic abuse. And even though I quit the field about a year ago, I find it hard to refuse the chance to reach out to any group who is willing to listen. Just talking about a taboo issue like domestic violence prompts someone to take action. I like to think of the process as a domino effect. So I talk, and sometimes, thanks to the wonderful people who organize such sessions, I am allowed to yell and bang my fists on the table.

I conducted an information session lately to a group of women. The details will remain confidential, but there are a few things I can share.

I arrived a little early for my allocated time and slid discretely into a seat on the side. One of the organizers was prepping the audience, about thirty recent immigrant women, with the help of an interpreter. Often, I like to arrive ahead of time to study the group and challenge myself into believing that I could spot a possible victim by gauging the women’s reactions when the topic was announced. Most times, I find I lack that psychological radar. But occasionally, my suspicions get validated after the lecture, when a woman takes me aside and pours her heart to me. So I learned to leave enough time at the end of the session to basically hang around, allowing anyone who wishes to have a discreet talk the opportunity, hoping I could provide advice. I’m not a psychologist, and my compass that reads social clues is not totally effective, but experience has taught me it was easier for victims to talk in the third person, referring to a friend or a neighbor. It makes the words flow better, and the horror less embarrassing. I’m an engineer, and my approach to the issue has always been technical: Define the problem, determine the inputs and design an acceptable outcome.

A young woman, probably in her early twenties was among the crowd. The way her body shot up in her chair when the topic was announced, her back straightening, her head coming forward and her arms crossing together on her chest told me she became anxious. My heart sank. Not the young one, please. Not the young smiling one.

When it was my turn, I respectfully thanked the interpreter and excused her because I planned to talk to the women directly in their own language, removing one barrier between us. I talked about the different kinds of abuse, physical, emotional, sexual, and economical or a combination thereof. I brought examples of cases I worked on and offered possible solutions. I tried to explain that I was not there to disrupt anyone’s life, or accuse their husbands of mistreating them, but only to inform in the hope they would pass on the knowledge to someone they knew who might be suffering abuse. I explained legal procedures, women’s rights, their children’s rights, and what to expect from police officers when they get involved if a woman called for help. At the end, a few women opened up and became involved in the discussions, bringing in their own examples of “people they heard about.” Questions were answered, generalizations became more focused, and even jokes were made. I thanked everyone, and the usual commotion of acknowledgements took a few minutes. I stepped aside to gather my folders, stalling as usual.
A woman approached me, mid thirties, I guessed. Good, not the young one. Shy and hesitant, she smiled excessively and fidgeted in her place.

“It’s about my neighbor,” she started.

I took a few steps back, hung my head, lowered my voice so she would come closer to me, creating some distance between us and the rest of the crowd.

“Tell me about your neighbor,” I prompted.

What was revealed in the next fifteen minutes should not have been part of anyone’s life, be it this woman’s or her neighbor’s. I will stop at this point. All you need to know is that a very long and complicated process took place, bringing the woman some measure of help that I could only hope she would follow up on.

I was finally headed toward my car, counting steps to my mental and emotional freedom. A soft voice from behind called my name. I turned around. A young woman stood a couple of steps away, the same young woman I eyed before. Only, she was not smiling. I closed the distance between us.

Extending her hand, she introduced herself with impressive confidence: A graduate student about to choose a thesis topic for her Masters degree in social sciences. She knew exactly what she wanted to work on and needed references and some guidance about domestic violence issues pertaining to immigrant groups.

I breathed. Not a bit easier, but I realized I had been holding my breath. I gave her a hug, a bit longer than was respectable, I think. The discomfort showed on her face. I rushed into giving her my card, and listed a few destinations she could begin with.

During my drive home, I thought about the two ladies I had a private talk with. How one woman went out seeking knowledge, going into places looking for inspiration and had a plan for her future. The other lived in a bubble, in isolation, behind an invisible burqa, until a chance to speak up was presented to her. She knew nothing more, and did nothing less than survive.

While very different in spirit, I suspect there is at least one thing in common between these two women. Courage? I believe so.

Lilas Taha is a novelist, winner of the 2017 International Book Awards  and is the author of Shadows of Damascus and Bitter Almonds.


  1. I've always been so proud of you for being out there helping, protecting and educating these beautiful women into leading better lives. It takes a special person to do that. Great blog and story!

    1. Thanks, Manal. It's humbling to know the strength of these women.


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