Raped aged 14 and married off to a man 24 years her senior, Hawra’ suffered years of abuse that made her feel that she had been “buried alive”. Today she is an inspirational activist who campaigns against under-age marriage.
Hawra’, from Syria, shared her harrowing but ultimately empowering story on SAT-7’s new podcast for women in the Middle East. Hosted by Sirene Semerdjian, the presenter of You Are Not Alone on SAT-7 ARABIC, Ana Podcast features interviews with extraordinary women who have overcome adversity.
“I chose Hawra’ because I wanted to share the problem that is under-age marriage, but I also wanted to share the solution and how this woman faced her society. She is now a member of an organization and a motivational speaker, and she goes door-to-door to spread awareness to other young girls and their parents of this big issue,” Sirene said.
Rape and forced marriage
Hawra’ bravely shared the story of how she was drugged and raped by her own uncle, aged 14. Following the incident, she was whipped and chained, and imprisoned in the bathroom for eight months without explanation. Her family did not believe that it was Hawra’’s uncle who had assaulted her. They subsequently arranged to marry her off to a much older man whom she had never met, a common practice to cover up the shame of a rape in the family.
“I refused and went up to the roof to commit suicide,” Hawra’ said. A family member calmed her down and promised to stand with her. She relented and returned to the living room, where she met the man’s daughter from a previous marriage. “The child kept asking, ‘Are you going to be my mother?’” Hawra’ said. “I could tell from the way she looked that she was an oppressed little girl. Because she was a girl, I felt for her. I said, ‘Yes, I will be your mother.’”
Despite the awful circumstances, Hawra’ enjoyed caring for the four children from her husband’s previous marriage, until she was separated from them by her in-laws.
She became pregnant herself but did not know how women go into labour. She thought her contractions were stomach flu, until the baby just “slipped out” of her onto the floor. Her second child – a girl whom she hoped would live out her own dreams of becoming a lawyer – tragically died aged just 10 months. And that was the start of Hawra’’s standing up for herself, and for other girls.
“When she passed away, I went to my husband and said, ‘I either live with your children or I can’t live with you,’” Hawra’ said. “I wanted to protect the girls. I was worried that they would get raped, and this society isn’t merciful.” And so they were reunited.
Breaking the chain of abuse
As a result of the Syrian civil war, Hawra’, her husband and the children moved to Lebanon. There she was introduced to theatre, which she had loved as a child, and started to attend cultural plays performed by women.
“Theatre gave me confidence, which allowed me to join many things afterwards,” Hawra’ said. “I used to feel that they had buried me alive. ‘How long are you going to be pressed against the dirt? Rise out of the dirt!’ I told myself.”
Hawra’ later joined a campaign to lower the percentage of under-age marriages in Lebanon. She began sharing her story with families who were making similar decisions and was successful in preventing a number of under-age marriages.
Asked by Sirene why she joined the campaign, Hawra’ said, “Because I didn’t want anyone to ever experience my pain… I want youth to know that life is beautiful. Live it the way you want to. Get an education, have freedom, make your own choices, don’t let anyone force you into anything.”
Hawra’ remains married to her husband, and he has become supportive of her campaigning work. “Every time I rescue a young man or woman from under-age marriage, it gives me a new spirit. It gives me a spirit of strength,” she said.
Ana Podcast is available on YouTube, Facebook, and SAT-7 PLUS. It is one of a number of SAT-7 programs that are giving a voice to women across the Middle East and North Africa, inspiring change and advocating for a better future for girls and women in the region.
On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25), please pray:
- For an end to rape and other forms of violence and abuse against women in the MENA
- That girls will be protected from under-age marriage and allowed to make their own choices
- For the continued strength and resilience of women like Hawra’, who inspire change
- For the work of SAT-7 in giving a voice and hope to women in the region