Artist Fariha Róisín on sharing a troubled relationship with her mother and what true feminism means
The author of How To Cure A Ghost tells a story about reclaiming power
For all intents and purposes, my mother is a maleficent woman. She’s brash, she’s harsh—for years she played the super villain in the destroyed fairy tale of my very real childhood. She was beautiful as she was domineering; cunning as she was sweet. It was a mixture of mischievous abuse, and absolute control. I had no life under her rule, everything was terrifying, and I became used to the experience of having an entire life floating on eggshells.
As I never knew how to truly absolve her for her sins—I hated her in private instead. However, even knowing that my hate was justified brought me no peace. Sometimes I would see these sides of her, sides of purity, of innocence, of a naivety so deep, that it would hurt me. What had she seen, I would wonder? What does she know? Her bitterness about life was a resonating force, but never an illuminating one. Everyone was suspicious to her, everyone a possible sneak, an interloper. Someone to hurt her once again.
I wouldn’t have an answer until my father would write to me and my sister, in 2013. It was a brisk day, I remember the leaves were beginning to blossom. It was early, early spring in Montréal, and as I sat facing the road, the last remaining slight slush of snow on the pavement trickling into the drain, my father’s email hit me like a boom.
Until that moment I had never been given a confirmation of my mother’s pasts, just fragments of her being locked in a room for years, or her “hysteria,” but never anything as true, hard evidence. But in that email, it was everything that I needed to read. It was the seal of trauma I always longed for, making the jigsaw puzzles of my memory clearer.
Both my parents were raised in Bangladesh. Both of them, however, had very different (though both terrible) experiences of growing up during wartime. Of course, the difference is significant, because of gender.
My mother’s father was a socialist member of Parliament—Abdul Haque—a man I would dream of becoming ever since I knew he existed. Stoic, handsome and just, these were the characteristics I had of him in my mind. He was sanctified and loved as a robust patriarch.
When things escalated during the war of 1971—where the Pakistani Army murdered three million fellow Muslims, raping 400,000 women as a genocidal war tactic—they also attempted assassination on my grandfather. They were killing intellectuals, as is what often happens in genocide. Pakistan was trying to collapse Bangladesh and its newfound autonomy. Thing is, when they couldn’t kill him, they kidnapped my mother. She was untraceable for three days, in those days she was brutally treated. When she was finally returned home, nobody believed what happened to her. So she drank a bottle of kerosene, at 16, and attempted suicide for the first time.
Sometimes, there’s no way to divorce the overwhelming misery of abuse, the burden it creates, the heaviness and sadness that it fosters, encourages. If I were a different person, maybe I wouldn’t want to learn how to absolve my mother for the things she’s done to me. For the sexual, physical and emotional abuse, I’ve experienced from her. But, that’s not the future I believe in. My story is one of complexity, one of compassion, gentleness—but also one of reclaiming power.
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I mourn the life my mother never had to truly heal her wounds. I understand with a grave responsibility, I must do that work for both of us. Alone. Since recalling much of my sexual abuse early last year, I’ve started to get a clearer picture of how abuse is cyclical, and why maleficent women are often just hurt women. That might be an over-simplicity, but what if we stopped seeing people as bad as good, and started seeing them in the myriad ways in which they are. Now, I’m seeing people’s actions as a product sourced from their pain.
Tyranny, murderous actions—heck, what’s happening to Muslims around the globe, for example—is a product of people’s fear, one that is probably rooted in their youth. So much of what we learn—and taught to hate—begins in those kernels of our brains. The silly comments we are taught as children, how we learned superiority as a shield for our own insecurities.
Wanting to hurt other people, and doing it with terror, are never the actions of the sane. As I begin to understand this, I accept with totality that hurt people, hurt people. So, it becomes less about absolving people for their atrocities and becomes more an understanding of their reasons, while remaining firm in the acknowledgment that as a community, society, world—we need to start having compassion for ourselves so that we can have compassion for others. So we can truly begin to heal these old wounds that govern so much of our lives.
As long as we can hold both the understanding that people are hurt—but that we must do better, and become those vehicles of change—we can truly begin to evolve and heal. Ultimately, as corny as it sounds, all of us just want love, just want acceptance. Isn’t that the most human reality that is?
Now, at thirty, my feeling towards my mother’s maleficence have different dimensions. I’ve begun to see not only her, but women, as more complex. True feminism is unlearning misogyny, and so it means unlearning the limiting beliefs we have of women. If we want to move forward, if we truly want people of our ideals, we must stop containing and trapping women into small, unrecognisable archetypes. All of us have so much more to offer than just our mistakes.
Fariha Róisín is the author of How To Cure A Ghost.
Photograph (Fariha Róisín): Rebecca Storm