The Phoenix

We are conditioned to be compliant with our social and cultural expectations. So, it’s up to me as a woman to make my marriage work in spite of the fact that I might be married to an absolute dickhead. Men never get the blame for breaking up a marriage. He can have the affair, but it’s the wife’s fault he has an affair. Maybe she wasn’t giving him enough sex. Maybe she should have had a son. Maybe she should have cooked better. If you’d have been a good girl. No matter how consciously or cognitively you push it back … it pops up in those dark moments.
I was born in Southall and the only girl in the family. You know, the boys get away with everything. The girls get away with nothing. The only study I needed was to know how to cook, clean, sew … to look after the family.

When I was very young, I didn’t notice any difference between me and my brothers. We were treated pretty much the same. It wasn’t until I got into my teens that it was like ‘no, no, no, no, no. You don’t do that.” That was my first introduction to “hang on, things are different for girls.” I used to wear shorts and things when I was little, then it was like, “you have to stop wearing those sort of clothes because it’s not decent.”

When I was home with my family, I never understood what it means for girls to be unsafe. I had two older brothers, and they were in the same school. I was very protected. I also had six cousins, all boys, around me so I never felt unsafe at all growing up. Even when I went to university, which was in London, I didn’t feel unsafe because I had a massive family there with lots of cousins. I had this network of men around me…I used to find it claustrophobic. I didn’t see it as protection of being kept safe, but I found it claustrophobic that wherever I went, there’d be a male relative there. It really wasn’t until I came to Australia that I suddenly realized how unsafe it is for a woman.

I was barely 26 when I came to Australia. I was foolish enough to get married. I came here with my husband. He wanted to move to Australia. My family were not keen. But I had a husband and, in their eyes, I had somebody who was going to look after me. Things didn’t turn out like that. And within months we separated, and that was my first very stark introduction into “Hey, I’m not a person, I’m a piece of meat.”

I felt like a piece of meat. Everyone thought that I served a purpose for them. ‘Can you marry my brother in India? Bring him over here?’ That sort of thing. And I was very isolated within the community. I was ostracized. I was blamed. I was accused. My in-laws told people “We had to kick her out because she is a prostitute. She was taking drugs.”

I went to the local temple because I didn’t know anybody else, and I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have working rights. I didn’t have any of these things. So, I went along to the temple and said “Look, I’ve got this tussle with my husband and the in-laws can you help me out?” I had no transport, I had nowhere to live, I was dependent on people, you know? I would be offered a lift and even though I was new, and I didn’t know directions, I knew we were going the wrong way. So, on several occasions I got out of cars at traffic lights, not knowing where I was, but it was safer for me to get out in the middle of nowhere than it was to stay in the car. I could feel it and then, you know, I went through what I would call pretty close calls to sexual assaults, but, well, I’d say by the grace of God that in each case, something intervened or something happened that stopped it from going all the way.

An illustration of a phoenix

So that was my first introduction, that if you are a woman by yourself in a large country a long way from your family, then you’re fair game. I have never told my family. I’m telling you now and you’re making me think about when it first happened. I haven’t even told my closest friends.

When my marriage broke down, my father asked me to return to England, but I was actually kept in Australia by administration, by the system, not because I had no family to go to. I couldn’t get a divorce in England at the time, and I had a lot of money tied up with my ex-husband. Which in the end I didn’t get but it kept me here for years trying to resolve that. And in that time I got a permanent job. England went into recession. I had a good job and everything, so I thought I’d stay a bit longer and then a bit longer, and I’m still here.

I had to go through the family court and was harassed by my in-laws who even took out an AVO against me. I didn’t even know what they were. I’ve never been to court. I’ve never ever thought of going to court. I’ve never seen a police officer other than in a car going by.

But I found myself in court, like in the dock, like a criminal. I thought this country was like England. I went along to certain services like Mission Australia and I asked them for help because I didn’t have my hundred points to get my tax file number and all these things. They basically said, “you can probably get a job and look after yourself. We can’t support people like you.” My English wasn’t a barrier, my education wasn’t a barrier. Even my background living in a country like England wasn’t a barrier, but this country shut its door on me.

I think the time that I really felt the strongest was actually when I was at my most vulnerable. I remember sitting at Town Hall. There’s a place there with public telephones and I looked up and it said ‘40 cents’. Back then you could put 40 cents in and make a call and talk to anybody for as long as you wanted.

Now, where I came from in England, it was a timed call, so the longer you stayed on the phone, the more you paid. So, we’re very used to making very short calls. So, I thought to myself, ‘oh I could ring someone’, and it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t know anybody in Australia to ring. 40 cents was meaningless. I remember that as one of my lowest points.

But then I walked out and suddenly I thought, ‘No, this is not going to be me.’ And then I thought to myself, ‘You know what? Success is the best form of revenge. My in-laws and my ex-husband are trying to harass me to the point of them dictating where I live, i.e. go back to England. Well, I’m not going back. And I didn’t.

There was a time when I was in my thirties, I’d probably say that was the worst time in terms of men just becoming paw-y. You know, they just want to touch you and get anything else they could out of you. It was quite a horrific time for me, and I used to think if I get older and when I get fatter, I’ll be unattractive, and it won’t happen to me.

I’ve learned now that sexual assault has nothing to do with what you look like. It’s nothing to do with your personality. It is about control, and any woman is vulnerable. I’ve heard stories from mothers who are assaulted by their son in laws. And, you know, threatened by their son in laws because they’re older and they’re dependent on living with them.

So, whether you’re in the home with family or whether you’ve got in home care, if you’re incapacitated or you become weaker, I think there is a real threat that yes, you may well experience it.

If I was to be really honest with you, I would say I’m not going to get to 90 if I’m alone and I’m dependent on someone. I would be considering taking something and be done with it. I don’t want an extended life that doesn’t have quality or dignity. I’m not suicidal, I’m a practical person. I want to enjoy life. I want to live life. I want to have independence and self-determination. I don’t want to be eating to someone’s timetable. I want to eat when I am hungry.

We are conditioned to be compliant with our social and cultural expectations. So, it’s up to me as a woman to make my marriage work in spite of the fact that I might be married to an absolute dickhead. Men never get the blame for breaking up a marriage. He can have the affair, but it’s the wife’s fault he has an affair. Maybe she wasn’t giving him enough sex. Maybe she should have had a son. Maybe she should have cooked better. You know, we make excuses all the time.

That conditioned cultural norm is in the back of your head all the time, no matter how consciously or cognitively you push it back … you know the logic, you know the reasoning, but it then pops, you know, in those dark moments. “If you’d have been a good girl”, “if you’d have been a better wife”, “if you had been a better daughter” …. if, if, if, if, if.

I think most women you’ll probably talk to in my generation, we recognize that.
I think if you ask me how I feel, I would say I feel like I’m one person on a planet. But, if I was to describe how my life has ended up, I would say The Phoenix. I think to myself, people kicked me down, but then I pick myself up and I get onto it and I turn adversity into advantage. I’ve done it many a times, and I know that’s something that I’m good at.

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