“No one can save you, but you.”

I belong to an orthodox Muslim family in Mukkam, Kerala; one where girls aren’t meant to have a voice, and most days, aren’t even supposed to exist. That’s why my biological father left my mother when he found out she’d given birth to me, a girl. She remarried soon after– I lived with my mother, step father and 4 step siblings.

My days were all the same– I’d go to school and do household chores once I got back; I didn’t have many friends. But there was a certain lifestyle that had to be followed, where men made all the decisions. They would even eat before the women– we were to serve them while they ate. For me, this was normal; it was all I knew.

One day, when I got back home from school, there were two people sitting in the veranda. My mother asked me to serve them tea– I did as I was told. I remember, I was still in my school uniform. They smiled when I served them, and left soon after. That’s when my mother told me that they’d come to see me– I was to be married to the young boy. I was shocked– I wasn’t expecting it. Moreover, I knew there was something different about him. By chance, we’d studied autism that day in school and he ticked all the boxes. But my mother simply wrote it off saying he was shy and quiet. To her, it was enough that he had all his limbs, no crooked teeth and didn’t drink or smoke– what more could a girl want? But I was freaking out– I simply did not want to get married. For the first time in my life, I said, ‘No,’ in a tone I’d never used before. But it fell on deaf ears– they fixed my marriage to him. I cried, I pleaded and even stayed hungry. All the while, my mother’s emotional blackmail continued; she threatened to commit suicide. my parents would say, ‘He likes it. He can do whatever he wants as long as he isn’t harming anyone.’

Apparently, calling off the wedding would bring ‘shame’ to the family as my sisters were yet to be married. My last resort was to talk to my to-be-husband. I called him and begged him to call it off. His immediate and only reply was, ‘What are you wearing right now?’ I was at a loss for words– I had no out.

What’s worse is that during the Nikaah, you don’t even need the bride to be present– my father could just simply ‘hand me over’ to the groom. Which is what happened. I’d been 18 years old for just 3 days. No one bothered to ask me what I wanted, what I thought– my fate was written without my consent, and at 18 I was bound to a man I didn’t know.On the night of the wedding, when he reached out to touch me, I lost it. I remember running circles around the bed trying to get away from him; screaming and crying. I couldn’t calm down, so my mother-in-law made me sleep in her room. My father was called the next day, and I was sent back home. I was glad– I preferred death over being forced to bed with someone I didn’t know.

Once again, my mom threatened to commit suicide as I’d shamed the family. But I wouldn’t go back, no matter what. I told my mother that instead of her, I’d commit suicide– then there’d be no shame, right? My parents asked me to not take any steps till my younger sisters got married. I didn’t want them to suffer because of me, so I kept quiet for one whole year. Throughout, I knew they thought I was a burden.

But once they were settled in their lives, I asked for a divorce. My parents knew it was coming. They couldn’t even refute me, because somewhere they understood they’d made a mistake. So the village presidents were called to sit for the divorce proceedings. The patriarchy ran so deep that I wasn’t even allowed to sit there– I was made to sit in another room, while the men discussed MY marriage.

But I could hear them. When my parents brought up the fact that they’d hidden that the guy was autustic, the village presidents blamed my parents– because they didn’t bother to find out or crosscheck anything, this was on them. How was that fair? I remained silent. But when someone said, ‘In Islam, if your husband wants to have sex with you, you can’t say no. If you do, you’re the lowest of the low,’ I came out of the room. I confronted the man who was representing my husband. I asked him if he had any daughters and if he did, what would he have done for them if they were in the same situation.

Everyone was stunned into silence– no one expected me, a girl, to speak up. The only response I got was, ‘What’s happened has happened. If your husband got paralyzed after marriage, would you leave him?’ When I think about it now, I know it was the shittiest example they could’ve given.

Since I refused to give in, with no other choice, the divorce was finalized after that meeting. ‘Talaq, talaq, talaq,’ was written down on a piece of paper and that was the end of it. I lost my freedom with three words, and I found my freedom once again with just three words.But my freedom was short lived– I was back home where every day felt like a battle. Without my family’s support, I was unable to complete my education. But I wanted to be self-sufficient, so every day, I’d say, ‘I want to work, I want to work,’ almost as if I was chanting a mantra. After a point, they had no choice but to let me work.

So I applied to be an executive at a vehicle showroom and got the job. I was always meek, but there I had to speak up and convince people to buy scooters. It helped boost my confidence– at work, and at home. But society thought it was their birthright to constantly remind me that I was a divorcee.

On the bus, people would stare at me, whisper behind my back and sometimes taunt me to my face– they’d say, ‘Oh, he divorced you!’ At first, I felt ashamed and would try to hide if I saw anyone who knew me. But then, I was just pissed off– why should I have to hide? So the next time someone taunted me, I said, ‘He didn’t divorce me, I divorced him!’ Soon enough, the pressure mounting at home reached an all time high as the question arose, ‘When will you get married?’ I remember, my family would send people to see me at my office– without informing me! It was the same drama all over again– according to them, I had to somehow shun this label of being a ‘divorcee’.

It’s not like I wasn’t open to the idea of marriage; I was. But I had one condition: I insisted on talking to the guy before I said yes. I began meeting guys, but either I rejected them or I was rejected for being too straightforward; I told everyone of my past with no shame. This continued for a while until one day, a well built guy came to see me.

When I spoke to him, I told him the truth. He was broadminded– in fact when I told him that I was still a virgin, he said that it didn’t matter. It was almost unbelievable that such a guy existed in our community. I liked him and agreed to the alliance. I happily attended my Nikaah– I was head over heels for him. So on the wedding night, I waited for him, bubbling with anticipation. When he entered the room, before I could even react, he slapped me and I fell to the floor. When I gathered my wits and asked him why he slapped me, he pulled me by my hair and said, ‘What else do you expect? You’re secondhand.

Secondhand’; all it took was one word to shatter my trust in him. I was so shocked that my brain went numb and I began sobbing. I was so traumatized, that I didn’t even realize when he tied my hands and legs to the bed. He then brutally raped me– the pain was unimaginable. When I woke up the next day, he behaved as if nothing had happened; I convinced myself that it was normal.

I’d left my job before the wedding, because I was expected to be a loving housewife, who’d cook and clean. So I had to learn to deal with my situation– I couldn’t be a two-time divorcee. But I got another blow– I found out that my husband was a drug addict. To his family, he was the perfect son, but behind closed doors he’d get high on crystal meth. He was smart– he didn’t indulge in alcohol because he knew people would be able to smell it on him.

My family thought I was happy. All the while, he’d constantly threaten to kill me, to chop me up into pieces or even fake my suicide. He had a clean image, so even if I told anyone, no one would believe me. I was terrified, and began recording the abuse on my phone as evidence. What if I died and no one knew what really happened to me? I gave my cousin the password to my phone.

For three months, he tied me up and raped me. I was very naive back then– because when I found out I was pregnant, I thought he’d change. How wrong I was; when I told him, he kicked me in the stomach. I cried out loud and he tried to cover my mouth to silence me. But when I started bleeding, he had no choice but to take me to the hospital. We were on our way there, when he tried to kill me.We were on his scooter when he threw me off it, hoping I’d get hit by a car. I survived but instead of taking me to the hospital, he took me to his sister’s house. She was shocked at my state and forced him to take me to the hospital. There, I was able to call my mother. I was bleeding when the doctor said that I had an ectopic pregnancy, and if I didn’t have surgery immediately, I’d die. Hearing this, my husband decided to waste 6 hours by fighting with the doctor; he hoped time would do its job and I’d bleed out.

That’s when my mom got suspicious and pushed to get the operation done– but I’d lost my baby. The next day, he called my mother and asked for a divorce– he said that I was disrespectful towards his parents, and that I refused to have sex with him. Which was ridiculous– I was pregnant for God's sake! He knew what had happened in my first marriage, and cunningly used the same reason.

I was the only one who was subjected to his evil side. On our ‘honeymoon’, I even caught him having sex with someone else. I lost all hope as the abuse continued– he loved to see people in pain. I lost weight and would always have bruises all over my body. Whenever I visited my parents, I’d wear full sleeves– we had to play the part of the perfect couple for society. Once, when my sister saw a bruise on my neck, I lied to her and said that I had a fall.

Again, my mom blamed me– that’s when I told her the truth. I even told her that I’d go back to him, to save my family from shame. But she said, ‘You won’t go back.’ I was furious– he’d killed my child. So even though my wound hadn’t healed and I could barely walk, I began going to the police station to get an FIR filed against him; but no one cared. One day, my mom and I went to his house to get my gold and certificates back– but he kicked my stomach again and even slapped my mom. I was rushed to the hospital and finally, the police had no choice but to take my statement. They couldn’t immediately register my case, but he was arrested for slapping my mother and was taken into remand for 14 days. By the time he got out on bail, my FIR was filed.

He knew that there was no way he could avoid going to jail, so he tried to settle outside of court. But I was fuming– I refused to let that man roam free. He kept skipping court dates, while I waited for hours in court. While I was there, I began talking to other Muslim women who were fighting similar cases– most of them were waiting for a resolution for over 5 years. Is that what I wanted my life to become? I was 22– I had a lifetime ahead of me. Why should I suffer more because of him? I had to accept that it would take too long for him to be sentenced, but I could build a better future for myself. I made a deal with him– I’d withdraw my case if he gave back my gold and certificates, and sign the divorce papers. He agreed– I silenced my anger and moved on.

But I was done– with the judicial system, with Kerala, with India. I wanted to go somewhere no one knew me; I wanted to live peacefully. But once again, my family stood in my way. They wanted to keep me at home and to make sure I didn’t leave the country or get a job, they burned my passport and certificates.I was desperate– I turned against my parents. I filed a complaint against them in the Women’s Cell for burning my documents, and not letting me leave. I tried everything– I told my mother that I’d publicly shame her; that I’d go to the media. They agreed to get new documents organized if I signed an agreement stating that I had no right to the family property.

I just wanted to leave, and agreed. For the first time in my life, I put my needs above theirs. With Rs. 5000 in savings, I left for Kochi. I stayed in a hostel, and interviewed at a fitness center to work as a receptionist. I told the owner everything, and begged for a chance to prove myself, otherwise I’d have to go back. He hired me; my salary was Rs. 11,000; it was my first victory in a long time.

I finally had the chance to discover ‘me’– I got into fitness. I was just 35 kilos, and to put on weight, I began working out. My entire look changed– I even chopped off all my hair and donated it to cancer patients. I’d never cut my hair before, because men supposedly ‘preferred’ girls with long hair, but I no longer cared.

I was dating someone at the time, but I was unable to move ahead with him physically; I thought it was probably because of the past trauma. But when I connected with a girl from Belgium on Instagram, everything changed. I developed feelings for her… feelings I couldn’t explain. That was the first time I admitted to myself that I found women attractive and broke up with my boyfriend.

It didn’t work out with the girl, but I wanted to explore my sexual orientation further and joined a dating app. I went on several dates– I still remember, when I had sex with a woman for the first time, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Oh my god, I’m so gay!’ At first I thought I was bisexual, but that wasn’t the case– I identified as a lesbian. I found a piece of the puzzle I didn’t even know was missing.

Over time, I decided to pursue fitness seriously and went to Bangalore for a course to become a trainer. I scraped up all my savings to pay for it. Once I got there, I only had a months worth of money to survive on– I applied for jobs everywhere, but because my English wasn’t that great back then, it was tough. Finally, I got a job at McDonald’s; I began working there and studied to be a trainer on the weekends.

I was hand to mouth– when I got dengue, I had no money to get treated. So my previous gym owner’s mom sent me money without me even asking; it was my first tryst with kindness. Slowly, I got better, got back on my feet and completed the course. I then got a job offer to work the front desk at a gym for Rs. 18,000, with an offer to train under the owner who was ex-Mr.India. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.I didn’t even have to give it a second thought– there was nothing left for me back in Kerala. So I took up the job and began training. Over time, I got buff. I wanted to enter a bodybuilding competition, but needed a sponsor– someone who’d be willing to take a chance on me and shell out 5-6 lakhs.

So with that thought, I posted a transformation photo on social media. A guy randomly stumbled on it and featured me on his blog– overnight I went from 3000 to 35,000 followers! It was just a snowball effect from then on. Someone else on TikTok even made a transformation video on me, which went viral as well! I got so much love and encouragement; I even got modelling and endorsement offers. But even though I needed the money, I turned them down– I don’t want to be a model, I want to be recognized in the fitness industry. On the flip side, I also got hate from the Muslim community– they said things like, ‘Allah is watching, you’re going to burn in hell.’ Honestly, if I’m going to go to hell for doing something I love, half the world will be chilling there with me!

I still haven’t found a sponsor, but I’m not waiting around. I’m going to make it happen and sponsor myself. During the lockdown, I began an online diet program– I promoted it on social media; I got 17 clients on the first day and today I got over 600 clients! I’m saving every penny.

I’ve realized that if you want something in life, you have to make it happen yourself; whether that’s finances, family or love. I’m finally in a healthy relationship– I met Richa before the lockdown and we decided to quarantine together. We’re officially in a live-in relationship; we fight, we love but above all, we’re happy– we recently adopted a dog! I’ve left my life in Mukkam behind me. I still have no contact with my parents; I can’t bring myself to forgive them for their decisions, especially my mother. I don’t know what will happen decades down the road, but right now, I don’t want them in my life. In the last 6 years, it seems like I’ve lived a lifetime. So take it from me, there is no knight in shining armor; there is no one coming to save us. We have to do it ourselves– no one can save you, but you."

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