My name is Sooshmita and I am a survivor.
Before I share the story of my arranged marriage, I would like to begin with my childhood, and how I used to be as a young woman. I was born in Birmingham, UK and brought up in London. I remember being very quiet, reserved, and I hardly used to speak. When I was five or six my teachers were worried that I may have speech difficulties and suggested to my mum to take me to a speech therapist. After a number of sessions at the hospital they concluded that was able to speak, but just very shy and quiet. As a child I can remember not being able to express my needs, and I suppressed my emotions so that I could fit in with others. As a result, I had many negative experiences in both primary and high school
My parent’s marriage had been arranged for them in their mid twenties, and they migrated to the UK from Bangladesh in l979. They both had strong cultural values. A year after my sister was born my mother got a job, and my father had started his own business. I had a very simple, but sheltered life. After school I would just go straight home and do my homework. Any socializing events were usually with family or relatives, but I was not encouraged to have a social life outside of my family, especially if there were different ethnicities or races involved. Although my parents were traditional, I do remember my father would always help my mother with cooking and taking care of us, and I saw an equal partnership between them.
In my culture and religion (Islam) women get married straight after graduating, usually at 22 years old. She would be lucky if she was able to go to a university. My sister is five years older than me, and when she was 22 my parents started to look for a potential partner for her marriage. There were quite a few men with professional careers who met my sister, but when my sister turned 25 my mum started to panic because of her age. Rather than encouraging my sister to excel with her job my mum kept saying, “Why is God not helping you to get married?” My father wasn’t as worried as my mum was though. I was 19 at the time, and one of my friends shared that her cousin’s friend was looking for a potential partner for her brother. It seemed that the description of my sister was a pretty good match for him. I introduced this potential partner to my parents, and once they met, my sister and brother in law got married six months later. My sister has the conventional beauty that is recognised by most people from my culture. This means she is fair skinned and tall. I believe we are all beautiful in our own ways, however I do not fit the conventional type as my skin is not fair. I remember in my childhood being asked by my relatives why my skin was dark, this of course affected my self esteem because I believed I was not as beautiful as my sister.
The traditional path for most women in my culture is to get married and have children. I have quite a few female cousins the same age as my sister who have been looking for spouses since the 2005, but they are still single because they have not been able to find the right partner. I remember turning 20 and hoping not to end up like my older cousins who have been single for too long. Although my mum had been working since the year 1980, she did have a very traditional mindset in relation to the roles women and men play in our culture. Once she said to my cousin, “Men should have careers and women should have beauty.” Looking back I understand why I had toxic false beliefs about gender roles, and I see the negative impact of this throughout my life.
At the age of 19 I was not sure what to study, however my parents had this notion that if you do not have a degree then you are a failure. Randomly, I chose to study criminology with law only to later regret this. After graduating it was my turn for my parents to find me a potential marital partner. I was 23 at this time and the business of exchanging photos and bio-data began to be exchanged between families. At times “Aunty” would introduce me to a guy’s mother, who would either find me pretty or not good enough. At this time my self worth was being tossed around. When I would hear how some men rejected me I would feel crushed, and the agony of waiting to be wanted by someone was painful. Seeing my older cousins still single also added to my anxiety and fear of getting old and still being single, even though I was just 24.
My mother had a friend who suggested a potential partner for me who was living in Bangladesh. He came to England with his family for his cousin’s wedding. My mum shared the details with me, and since I knew it was time for me to get married, I agreed to meet him. My mum and sister accompanied me to meet him and his parents. They left us alone to chat, and while he was being friendly and nice, I could see that there was a vast difference between us. I felt a cultural barrier since he was born and brought up in Bangladesh, but most of all there was no physical attraction. I did not want to be rude so we did have a friendly conversation about each other’s hobbies and interests. Once our families returned the “Aunty” who introduced this proposal kept telling us to exchange numbers. I did not want to give my number, as I did not like him, so I stayed quiet and was hoping my silence would be taken as a hard NO.
Once I got home my mum was very happy and kept repeating that this man was perfect for me. She kept emphasizing that his father is a professor and that his mother has a master’s degree. This man was not bad looking, and he is a doctor. The medical profession is my mother’s favorite, she really admires men and women who become doctors.
I kept telling my mum that I did not like him, and that I was not attracted to him emotionally or physically. He was a big tall man, but my mum kept saying he would lose weight, and that appearance is not important. She believes that career and family status are the most important factors for a good marriage. At this point the third person who was a mediator, another “Aunty”, called my mother and kept emphasizing how this man was perfect for me, and that the family liked me. This encouraged my mum to keep trying to persuade me to change my mind. She shared with my brother, father and uncle how perfect she thought this match was for me.
This is when I began suppressing my emotions, and started to abandon myself for my family’s validation, and what they thought was best for me.
I met my ex-husband in June 2010, and once they went back to Bangladesh we spoke a few times on the phone. I got a job as an administrator, but I was struggling to concentrate knowing that at some point I would be getting married to this man. One day on my way from work he called me and said that he was coming back with his family to the UK the next month, meaning September 2010. He said the Nikah (Islamic marriage ceremony has been planned for September 8, 2010). I rushed home and was in shock when my mother said they had agreed with his father to have the Nikah. I told my mother that they were rushing the marriage, and that I need more time to get to know him. My mum said that their holiday visas were to expire in November, and that his father was worried that if we waited, it may not be easy to get granted another holiday visa. Therefore they wanted to come to the UK for the marriage ceremony before the visa expired. My mum and uncle supported this and I felt ignored. Before my marriage, my uncle visited my soon to be husband and his parents. He gave my mum positive feedback about them, and this made my situation worse as my mum continued to pressure me to accept this marriage arrangement.
They all came back to the UK from Bangladesh, and my marriage ceremony took place at home on September 7, 2010. Prior to the marriage, I was distraught and emotional. I kept asking myself why, just 3 months earlier, I had even agreed to meet him and his parents in the first place. Had I known about the pressure campaign that would follow by my family, uncle, and 3rd “Auntie” to meet my future husband and his parents, I would never have agreed to meet him. I found myself in a situation where I felt helpless, and so I married him. I was so good at hiding my emotions and pushing my authentic self deep into my unconscious mind, it was as if I was wearing a mask from the day we married.
Although I was not physically attracted to him things were okay at the beginning. However, intimacy was very hard for me as I did not want him to get too close, nor did I want to be touched by him. There was no one that I could share this with either, because in my family we were brought up not to speak about anything sexual or intimate, it is considered taboo in my culture. I felt ashamed for feeling like this as I was his wife. I was unable to share this even with a friend because I felt so ashamed that I allowed myself to get into that difficult situation in the first place, and now I did not know how to get out. My friend told me later that when she asked me about intimacy in my marriage, and I said everything was okay, she knew I was not telling the truth, but did say anything because she didn’t want to make me feel even worse than I already did.
In January of 2011, I traveled to Bangladesh for my second marriage ceremony, and to help him apply for his spousal visa so that he could move to the UK with me. I felt like my marriage was a business transaction; he would get to live in the UK and my family would gain a medical doctor. I asked him if he had agreed to our marriage just for my British citizenship and he said no, which was a lie. I found out that the reason he was pressured to marry me was for my British status. Prior to traveling to Bangladesh I was consumed with sadness and despair, but I accepted it, and tried to focus only on the good parts. As I had never traveled anywhere alone due to my sheltered life, I found that traveling to Bangladesh alone was exciting. They lived in the capital city, and I welcomed the new experience of seeing another lifestyle in a country that was so different to my own.
Once I arrived there I just wanted to run back home and tell everyone I made a big mistake. It did not feel right, but I tried to make the most of my time in Bangladesh. I would go shopping and to restaurants so that my mind was occupied with good things. But then one night he attacked me as I was sleeping. I was just in shock. When I asked him about it the next day he said he had a bad dream. I believed him, because at that time I had no idea that he had a mental illness that affected his sleep. I stayed quiet and thought maybe I should not make a big issue as he was not showing any sign of remorse or apology. Then I packed it away in my mind and forgot about it until he moved to the UK in February of 2012.
When he arrived in the UK I was applying for jobs without any luck, and that meant I was home most of the time. My duty as a wife was expected from both him, and my mum, and life was hard. During this time he was studying English for his UK medical exam in order to qualify as a doctor and he was unable to provide me with anything. Our accommodations and food were provided to us by my parents. Living with my family, and with a husband who was not providing anything, was painful. I always saw other husbands providing and taking care of their wives, but not him. I was the traditional wife taking care of all his needs, but I was not receiving anything in return. My mum would say to me, “Be patient, you will have everything once he is a qualified UK doctor.” So I waited whilst playing the role of the good wife. I was hoping I could get a job so that I was not home with him everyday, but cuts in the job market made it hard to find a graduate job. He would sometimes study at the library, and when he would return home I would have his dinners ready. I would clean up after him, as he never had to do this in Bangladesh either. In Bangladesh, families will have a maid to do this. I accepted my new life hoping that I would find some joy, at some point. My mum taught me that you don’t always love a man before marriage, that the love begins and grows after marriage. I was hoping I would learn to love him. I began waiting for things to change, but I felt trapped, so I stayed silent.
At this time my nan (grandmother) was diagnosed with dementia (Alzhiemer’s). I had never heard of dementia or what the condition was like until I saw my nan’s symptoms. Out of curiosity, I began to study books on neuroscience and decided to go back to university at the age of 27. My family could not understand why I wanted to go back for more education. They kept telling me to just get a job, and questioned why I wanted another degree. Nevertheless, I went back to university, and I am so glad I did! I met peers from all backgrounds and ages. I didn’t feel ashamed to be studying again at the age of 27. Being at university and studying a subject I loved was the only form of happiness I had at this time. I had absolutely nothing in common with my husband, and we were totally different people. I was interested in living a healthy life, and he was the opposite. His doctor advised him to lose weight for his physical health issues. His life was mostly studying, and then his father would send him money for his exams. It did not bother me that it had been two years since he had come to the UK and yet had not passed the medical exam, as I was focusing on me and my own passion.
Sexual intimacy with him was very hard for me. Every time we would have sex I would detach and imagine myself as a sex worker, and he my client. My imagination helped me to get through it, as it made me feel powerful to have a little control. Looking back, I think that feeling like I did, not having any power over my life choices, but being able to feel somewhat powerful through my imagination of being a sex worker helped me to survive.
Symptoms related to his illness were starting to show, but I had never met anyone with mental illness. I was not aware that all these issues that were starting were a part of his condition known as Psychosis with severe OCD. His self care was very poor and I could not understand how he could live like this. He would not shower despite me telling him many times to have shower. He smelled very bad, but it would take my parents telling him to have shower to actually get him to do it. I was so confused by all of his behavior. During my second year as a Psychology undergraduate I was studying with my peers and we were discussing various mental illnesses as a group. There was this case study where a man kept showering due to his OCD, and I can remember thinking that I wish my husband would do this.
A few days later his exam results were to be released. He told everyone that he did not pass, but the truth was that he did not attend the exam. It was then, after 2 years, that he told me that he had mental illness (Psychosis and OCD). I was completely shocked to hear this. I was studying psychology, and now I had a husband who had a mental illness. This was obviously my golden chance to escape, but I was trapped by his emotionally manipulative words. He said marriage is about supporting spouses through good and bad times, and that if I had mental illness how would I feel if he left me? I realized that he must have had this illness before we got married, because it didn’t make sense that it would have suddenly just surfaced. He emphasized how people take medication for this sort of thing, but said that he never took medication prior to our first year of marriage because he was well. I had no evidence that he was lying. I could not say anything, but I desperately wanted to leave.
The constant manipulation and guilt kept me stuck, even though by this time my mother and sister were telling me that I should leave him. His emotionally manipulative words about abandonment in a marriage due to illness made me feel that I could not walk away. It was at this point that things went from bad to worse. I was studying, but it was so hard to focus and I was becoming depressed. I was trapped in a bad marriage. Thankfully, I had a friend at university who was giving me support. Long story short, I was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused and neglected by my husband. My dream of a happy marriage was far away, and I ended up as his carer or what felt more like a life of a slavery for me. I attended all his medical and psychologist sessions with him, but nothing helped him as he was not willing to help himself. After finally passing the medical exam on his third attempt, his illness got worse, and he was again at home. He wasn’t applying for any jobs, nor was he following his treatment plan. I unexpectedly became pregnant because he raped me. I ended up having a miscarriage, and that was followed by surgery which was extremely traumatic. In 2016 I decided to separate from him, as my emotional and mental health were being adversely affected. He went back to Bangladesh to live with his parents, and I tried to focus on my final year’s thesis at the university.
There are a lot more details that I hope to be able to share in the future. I found evidence that he had been diagnosed with mental illness, and that he had taken medication for it prior to, and after we were married, and I felt somewhat vindicated. I knew that he would no longer be able to manipulate me or make me feel guilty, because I finally had evidence of his mental illness. This gave me the strength to leave. I graduated in the summer of 2017 with a second upper class degree. I was still in shock, but I was happy to know that I achieved this degree despite the challenges, and the darkness that I had endured.
After graduation, I traveled to Sri Lanka and worked with children and adults with learning disabilities for eight weeks. I made a plan that once I returned to the UK I would proceed with my divorce. I was hoping my family would see the evidence that I had, and that he had lied and betrayed me. I hoped they would also see that I tried to support him as a wife, but that I couldn’t live like that anymore. My family, especially my mum and sister, continued to pressure me not to get a divorce. At this time I told my husband to give me my dowry back, as it is stated on our Islamic marriage certificate. In Hindu religion the women’s parents pay the man who will take her as a wife, however in Islam it is the opposite, as the man gives the dowry as a gift to the woman. This dowry is stated on the marriage certificate so that if the divorce occurs he must pay her that specific amount of dowry back. When I asked my ex husband for it back, he refused. The Imam, who is like a priest at the mosque, also said to my ex-husband and his parents that as he never provided anything for me, and as they kept his illness hidden from me, than they should give me the dowry back, as its my right as a muslim wife. They of course refused to follow this Islamic marriage law.
I started my master’s program in September 2018, but it turned out to be a bad idea because I was distracted by the divorce I was so desperately fighting for, and from living with depression. I was finally diagnosed with Complex PTSD and clinical depression, and was put on a long waiting list to be seen by a therapist. I started taking an antidepressant to help me during those times when my anxiety would overwhelm me. In May of 2019, I finally got my diviorce certificate, but rather than feeling liberated I was in shock from the entire experience; my arranged marriage, his mental illness and lack of responsibility as a husband, the neglect and abuse I endured, but mostly because of the lack of support and love from my own family. I had been deceived by my ex-husband and his parents.
In April of 2020 I came across Rebel Thriver. At this time I had decided to take a study break, and I started teaching at a school for children with special needs. Working with children whilst going to therapy really helped me on my healing journey. I was still feeling shattered and lost, so I decided to sign up for Ella’s coaching program. It helped me to find confidence in myself. In Ella I found a coach who not only inspired me, but I trusted her because she had walked a very similar path as I had. She is a great role model to have. I now know that I will never settle for simply being a man’s wife again, I want so much more.
It was exactly at this time that I lost my beloved nan who had suffered with dementia for many years, and five weeks later I suddenly lost my father to cancer. The support and love from Ella and other women in the coaching group, who have now become my close friends, helped me to get through the bereavement. A year before I lost my father he started to understand how much my ex-husband and his parents deceived and lied to me and my family about his mental illness. My father asked me for the medical evidence so that he could travel to Bangladesh and file a case for the return of the dowry. My marriage caused so much trauma, and I told my father to forget the dowry, as they all will answer to God for it in the hereafter. Now that I have healed, I do regret not supporting my father with his decision to fight for my dowry. This is a battle that I may consider taking on in the near future because I i have legal rights and I want justice.
Marriage is meant to enrich your life, not enslave you. The worst thing in life isn’t being single, but rather being married and forced to live an unauthentic life, one that does not match your personal values. We shouldn’t worry if we feel that we do not fit in with others because the right people will always find you. I am currently working with children and have gone back to university to complete my postgraduate studies. It is tough to do both at the same time, but with amazing support from Ella (my coach and friend) and my mentors who are trained psychologists I am willing to endure this tough journey to achieve my goals. My dream is not only to be a clinical psychologist, but a psychologist who stands up for the justice of women from ethnic minorities who are not able to come forward for support. I want them to know that their voice matters, and that I will hold a safe place for them to heal. When you help others heal you are also helping yourself. I do not know what the future holds. A doctorate in clinical psychology is a very competitive career, but I would rather try and give it my all than be consumed by my fear of failure. Happiness is a journey, and not just a destination. As I strive for my goals I am discovering who I am meant to be.
Everyday I am learning how to make myself a better person, and how to transform my pain into a purpose. I will use my pain as fuel to make a better future not only for myself, but for women of all backgrounds. Life will never be perfect, but we don’t have to settle for less than we deserve. We can choose to seek the light even when we are stuck in the darkness.
As Ella always says, “Onwards we go.”
Thank you for reading my story.