The Mother Wound
by Amani Haydar
Published June 2021
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues that fury deforms fiction, referring to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the rageful monologues that interrupt the novel:
I shall be called discontented. I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes…
Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation precisely as men would suffer.
Woolf remarks that Brontë had more genius than Jane Austen, but her works,
if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. She will write in rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely … She is at war with her lot.
Woolf’s thesis – that the architecture of arts favoured the wealthy, monied, leisure class, chiefly men, leaving women the subjects rather than the writers of the stories that dominated culture – can be extended to writers of colour today, who exist in similar disadvantage to the status quo. But on the fury aspect, I would respectfully disagree. It is precisely the fury that animates Brontë’s work that lights a spark with readers. It was this raw and unleashed quality I found most thrilling: the breaks in consciousness where the narrator addresses the reader and reminds her that there is politics even in fiction. It is the fury in the author’s biography that finds a salve in words and helps us feel her characters’ realities coming up against the brute force of a society that discriminates against them.
This fury and power also animates The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar, an incandescent memoir of growing up in a home marked by coercive control, and of dealing with the psychological aftermath of losing her mother Salwa Haydar, who was stabbed to death by her father in their Bexley home in 2015.
Despite the horrific subject matter, Haydar, a visual artist who was an Archibald Prize finalist, writes poetically, furiously, illuminating her world as vividly as she does in her art practice. The beauty of her writing is in contrast to the coercive control she explores. A term gaining traction in the public sphere, ‘coercive control’ describes a repeated pattern of control and domination in a domestic relationship. It can include verbal, economic and psychological abuse, not just sexual and physical violence. According to experts, a history of coercive control is an even more important predictor of intimate partner homicide than a past history of physical violence. It underwrites domestic abuse, a gender inequality crisis that sees, on average, one woman killed at the hands of her partner in Australia every nine days.
Class, race, the politics of migration, and the intergenerational trauma of Salwa losing her own mother, who was killed in an Israeli drone attack in Lebanon in 2006, are exacerbating factors that Haydar unpicks with precision. And so are Islamophobia, patriarchy, the lack of interest shown by extended family and community, and the prurient fetishisation of a ravenous media.
Haydar dispatches each in turn, with an elegance that proves the most powerful a woman can be is when she is writing with cold fury. She is reclaiming a world that has stripped her of everything: her mother, her right to be angry, her voice, her complexity. Haydar links her personal tragedy to the myriad ways in which misogyny, patriarchy and racism hurt and harm, creating power dynamics within families that allow abuse to flourish.
This right to fury or talking back through the page is a mainstay of feminist and post-colonial literature and it informs Haydar’s feminist consciousness. It is underscored by her position as a devout Muslim woman, who embraced the hijab after her mother’s murder and found comfort in the esoteric Shi’ite Muslim tradition:
Patriarchy has taken so much from women … it chips away at our confidence and muffles our voices … Those of us who rely on religion or spirituality to navigate these challenges do not want to be told that we should also let patriarchy take our faith. To suggest that our faith makes us complicit in our own oppression and that we should therefore abandon it is a form of victim blaming.
It is telling that a woman with so much to say, and a survivor of domestic violence, struggles to find a home in a feminist space:
I didn’t know for sure if I was a feminist but I had always believed vehemently in equality … My friends and I had never been given permission to sound angry. And radical feminism. We weren’t allowed to be radical! We were the subjects of deradicalization. My education, my job, my role in the family – they all needed me to be a likable Arab Muslim woman, not a radical one.
Haydar is alienated by the anaemic offerings of white liberal feminism. ‘Potty mouthed, topless feminism,’ she writes, ‘seemed inaccessible to me and my peers with our complex ties to tradition and culture; it challenged us, but also alienated us, and sometimes blamed us.’ She ultimately finds solace in anti-violence activism, intersectionality, and Islamic feminist paradigms – a siphon to release her ‘rage and rebellion’, fury which is transmuted, as it was for Brontë, into art.
In 1987, after a decade in Australia, Haydar’s father returns to Lebanon to marry. He is introduced via networks to a young Salwa, who lives in the mountainous Kheil region on the outskirts of Aitaroun in Southern Lebanon. Salwa is seventeen, a high school graduate; her new husband is thirty. Haydar’s father returns to Sydney alone, to prepare her welcome, and the pair share passionate and hopeful letters. Salwa begins her life in Australia with an excitement that is soon deflated. Torn away from family and roots, Salwa is gradually entrapped by a husband who is not physically violent, but displays classic signs of coercive control: verbal and psychological intimidation, and constant judgment and criticism. She is berated constantly for saying, doing or wearing the ‘wrong’ thing, and denied access to relatives. Stunned, she ultimately swallows her disappointment: ‘she did not feel she could complain or demand even when things embarrassed or inconvenienced her.’
Haydar’s skill is in drawing the complex and subtle lines of coercive control. A beautifully dressed Salwa is reduced by a cutting remark as she is hopefully adorned with professional make-up for an event. After a kitchen fire Salwa’s burns are ignored by her husband. He rushes to blame her as he surveys the financial cost. Haydar illustrates the harm perpetrated by a man who is not a monster, but an everyday person: a father who takes his kids to parks and libraries and coaches her in school:
I always looked up to my father. I liked his nostalgic village stories and political anecdotes. I liked that he was into words and books.
Brutal attacks on Salwa’s self-esteem are interrupted by occasional oxygen bubbles of tenderness and care. It was as if a timebomb ticked through the cycle of reassurance and explosion: ‘Dad had the power to make me feel ashamed for small failures like bad marks or silly behaviour.’ Haydar portrays herself as a child internalising her parents’ constant fighting, unaware of how serious it was:
It didn’t seem extraordinary or horrible. It was just an extension of the perpetual fight between my parents who deep down loved each other … my parents were unhappy, but I’d never seen my dad hurt my mum. At least I thought I never had.
At one point, the family wipes their tears and turn up smiling to a wedding: ‘My father reassured us saying “I love your mum”.’ But Haydar grows increasingly sceptical. She describes the specific challenges her mother expressed to her. Her mother desired divorce, but was reluctant to face the financial and psychological challenges experienced by most women attempting to escape an abusive relationship; she was weighed down with the added burden of the community stigma, at times reinforced institutionally, which stained women, pressured them to stay and accept the burden of keeping the family together. ‘I sensed there was something smelly and sick in the air that we breathed,’ writes Haydar. ‘I started to wish they would just get divorced. (But) Good families don’t get divorced; and we were a good family.’
Haydar’s trauma is ever-present, and she funnels it into overachieving perfectionism in the ordered world of corporate law and a marriage to the right man, the kind Moey, whom she meets at law school and goes on to have two children with. Despite these successes, Haydar struggles as an adult; the past trails her. The wounds are burst open after her mother is killed. The gruelling trial as she and her two sisters face the ignorance of a wider society; and face financial precarity, navigating a bureaucracy that failed to consider the lived experiences of domestic abuse survivors and their families.
There is no time for grief, as others try to use Haydar’s personal tragedy as a political football. Media vultures circle, drawn to the cliché of the angry abusive Muslim man, one that Haydar’s father himself tries to capitalise on, declaring himself discriminated against in the legal system. This enrages Haydar:
Arab women should be able to critique the system for the harm it has done and still be able to access it in a crisis. There should be room to acknowledge the injustices that Arab men have faced and still seek justice for ourselves.
Haydar is bombarded with references to honour killings; a far-right party posts a horrifically insensitive racist jibe on their amateur website: ‘Muslim immigrant to Sydney murders wife because she wouldn’t pass table salt.’ Haydar suffers through a sermon where an Imam cautions the congregation against ‘westernised women’, who initiate divorce or embarrass their husbands by involving police. Extended family harass Haydar and her two sisters and Facebook posters accost her with cruel messages, accusing her of seeking publicity. Amidst it all, Haydar honours her mother Salwa – a tender, smart and talented woman who, despite years of abuse, had found the strength to seek separation from her husband, become economically empowered, and find employment as a drug and alcohol counsellor. Haydar never retreats from telling her mother’s full story. She writes without the self-conscious deliberation of a minority memoirist, who is burdened with the fear of reinforcing stereotypes of marginalised communities. Instead, she tackles this fear head-on and demolishes it:
Such is the double bind Muslim women survivors and activists find themselves in. Between the screeches of Islamophobes and the booming voice of patriarchy within our own communities there is little room for Muslim women to share their truths freely. Many of us want to critique patriarchy, to talk frankly about how rigid gender roles and inequality fuels violence and abuse. But we’re also worried our stories will feed the racists or invite family disapproval, victim blaming and slander.
Haydar does not shrink from the social and political themes that link her personal tragedy to bigger forces. But instead of furthering stereotypes, the power and deep humanity of Haydar’s story does the opposite. Stereotypes flatten and anonymise; stories enlarge, illuminating a specific and complex world. Haydar’s book powerfully reclaims her individual voice, in an area too often dominated by those who speak for minority communities. It boldly foregrounds an Arab Muslim woman, intellectual and lawyer, and valorises its hero – Salwa Haydar – a woman whose personality and life are illuminated as fully as her death. Haydar’s work provides emotional insights that extend, to readers of any background, the privilege of sharing in the depth of Haydar’s loss; and also pay tribute to her resilience and survival.
It is work that obeys that great mandate of literature, as a political and social imperative that demands: listen, stop, see me. It is an unapologetic rallying call for change:
Some said, “this isn’t the time or place”. I don’t agree. Women are dead everywhere. The wounds are everywhere. Everywhere is the time and the place.
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800 RESPECT / 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.