As a young girl growing up near Abu Dhabi, Samra Zafar aspired to graduate from an internationally renowned university. Today, she’s a public speaker, author, commercial accounts manager at RBC, and U of T’s youngest alumni governor. But the path that led to these achievements was far from what she planned for herself.
“One day my mom said she had received this marriage proposal for me. I was only 16 years old… I was just flabbergasted. I thought ‘How could this be possible?’” said Zafar.
Her suitor was a 28-year-old living in Mississauga with a steady job in IT and, like Zafar, he was of Pakistani descent. Zafar wanted nothing to do with this stranger who she was now expected to spend the rest of her life with, but she was called ungrateful by her friends. Every girl her age was supposed to dream of marrying a successful, older man.
“[My in-laws] even promised my parents that I’d finish school and that I could go to any university. So to me it was like I was going away to learn but to them I was going away with my husband, my caregiver, whatever you want to call it. It was a win-win,” she said.
Zafar turned 17 in April of 1999 and was married in July. She moved to Canada and realized she was pregnant shortly thereafter. Her schooling was put on hold and her in-laws moved in to care for her while her husband worked. During her pregnancy they told her that she should only think of herself as a mother, wife, and daughter-in-law who, “should feel lucky to have skipped that education crap and fulfilled her purpose as a woman sooner.”
For years, Zafar was humiliated, insulted and told that she didn’t deserve any better. Eventually the emotional abuse became physical but as her mother-in-law told her, “it’s not a woman’s place to speak up.” After the death of her father and birth of her second daughter in 2006 Zafar realized that no one else would rescue her.
She returned from her father’s funeral and started babysitting in her home. She did so in order to contribute to the household income but she also stashed some of her earnings while planning her escape.
“I love being a mom but I don’t think that being an empowered woman means that you’re getting away from your responsibilities as a nurturer,” she said. “You can absolutely do both.”
Zafar saved until she could afford a year of tuition and residence fees at U of T Mississauga. She took her girls and left her husband, working a number of jobs on campus and supplementing her earnings with scholarships awarded for being the top of her class. Upon graduating she received the John H. Moss scholarship — U of T’s highest academic honour awarded to a single outstanding student chosen from across all three campuses.
Zafar has since received a master’s degree in economics from U of T, published a feature article in Toronto Life, spoken at Women’s Day events for Amnesty International and other organizations, delivered guest lectures at universities including Yale Law School and authored a book to be released within the year.
“Opportunities will present themselves but you have to reach out and grab them. Who would have ever thought that from my abusive relationship I’d get the chance to inspire girls around the world to go to school?” said Zafar.
That’s how Zafar continues to talk about her adversities, not as obstacles that kept her from succeeding but as opportunities that motivated her to work towards a better life. Now she juggles her duty as a mother with her academic and professional responsibilities and is more confident for it. She looks back on her story of survival and sees a means through which she can motivate other women.
“The happiest a letter has ever made me is one that I received from a man in Pakistan that read, ‘I have a 17-year-old daughter whose wedding was arranged for next month. After reading your story I’ve decided to cancel her wedding and send her to university,’” said Zafar.
“Nothing is more empowering than a woman’s right to choose. If a woman wants to be a homemaker and a nurturer and she’s decided that for herself… she is just as empowered as a woman who’s the CEO of a multinational corporation,” she added.
Zafar admits that defying the expectations set upon you by your family or culture is a daunting prospect but it’s a worthy endeavour if you can enable an entire group of people.
“Carving a path on your own is scary. No one wants to be alone, but it’s about clearing that space for others to walk with you,” she said. “You can’t crave acceptance from people who aren’t inclusive. You’ll never get it. I have my friends, my fellow academics, and my mentors who champion and support me unconditionally. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and my honour is in my power to be myself — freely and unapologetically.”