When you meet Shirin Ariff, the first thing you will notice is that her smile radiates warmth like a kindled fireplace on a cold winter night. The outer corners of her mouth lift effortlessly, and her eyes brim with a tenderness that only a school-grade teacher could greet you with on the first day of school. What would never cross your mind is that these same eyes have seen unspeakable tragedy, surviving domestic violence, slavery, drug addiction, cancer and the demeaning, discarded existence of being a “second wife.”
“The Second Wife: Seduced into Slavery” is Ariff’s compelling yet painful memoir about transforming a life of betrayal, pain and suffering into one of liberation and advocacy. Shirin has made it her mission to help other women come out on the other side of adversity, and she was kind enough to sit with us at Brown Girl Magazine to share more of her story.
This book was emotional because everything you described — the tears, the pain, the false promises — was true. What was it like writing this memoir?
[It] was quite the process. I had many questions on my mind while writing this book – Log kya kahenge? What will people say? How will my ex and his family react? What would the repercussions be because of their reactions? What would the impact be on my children here and my parents and siblings back home? Recreating some of the traumatic experiences in my writings were as if I was reliving them. From time to time, I had to work on healing myself before I resumed writing. It took me over two years to complete this book. My publisher, who is also a life coach, offered me several sessions to push past the breakdowns I experienced. Once the book was done, it set me free.
You’ve experienced all walks of life — from decorated, palatial walls in India filled with laughter and games to school halls as a passionate educator, to cramped, often despairing conditions as a mother and wife surviving harsh Canadian winters, and ultimately to international stages as a keynote speaker. What do you make of your life’s journey?
My life’s journey has been magnificent. I am grateful for the wisdom I’ve acquired along the way. They make me who I am today. My life lessons could be a manual for someone else who is experiencing life the way I did. They do not have to go through what I had to go through, to learn what I learned, in order to flip their lives.
Even today, there is a stigma around divorce within the Indian community. What did divorce do for you?
Divorce brought us relief. It gave me a life of dignity and the opportunity to stand in my own leadership. I was able to restore my health and well-being and create a peaceful life of possibilities for me and my children. As a twice divorcee, I’ve had to navigate blame and shame. I have been criticized and condemned for being the one to ask for divorce. In some of our Indian homes, it is always the woman’s fault, and family members’ reactions range from being concerned about financial gains to commenting on the foolishness of giving up a rich husband. Ultimately, I stood up for my pain and dignity.
[Read Related: Model Minority, Private Pain: South Asian Women and Domestic Violence]
In the book, you say that getting cancer was “your gift.” What did it awaken in you?
Cancer was the cure to my miserable life. It cured me of low self-worth, self-loathing and the negative belief that life sucks if you are a woman. Of all the fears planted by my ex-husband since I came to Canada, the one that overcame me was the fear of what would happen to my four young children if I were to die. The mother in me believes that no one can love my children better than me. That shift was my pivotal moment in life. I realized that my presence makes a difference. I got clear about the contribution I make in the lives of these four little humans. I realized that I had to live for them. I began to question myself about what kind of lives I would want for my children.I was not abusive, but I was an enabler. I allowed abuse in my life. Was I making abuse normal for my children? I did not want my children to be exploited and abused and think it was normal. So, I realized that it was my responsibility to build a legacy of no abuse.
There’s an eye-opening moment in the book where you admit that your need for love made you agree to a life of suffering. What do you want readers to understand about forgiveness and healing? Do you feel loved now?
I learned the distinction between needing love and wanting it. My parents had a “love marriage” (as they would say in India). Growing up, I witnessed the love my father has for my mother and I wanted a man to love me like that. As a young girl, I was a starry-eyed romantic, swayed by love stories in books and films. I saw marriage as my golden ticket to that kind of dream life. I believed that there was a prince out there just for me. He had to be all that I wanted him to be. I thought there was only one ingredient to make a successful marriage — and that was love.
Over the years I learned that married life requires integrity. We need to take inventory of what’s working and what’s not working, we need to learn to agree to disagree. Building trust and earning respect are so important. Marital partnership is a dance between intimacy and space. The agreements between a couple need to evolve as they do as individuals. It takes willingness on both sides to make it work. My parents are married for 52 years now and what made their marriage work is not just romantic love but the willingness to forgive and heal when things did not work and to continue to choose each other with their flaws and all. That is extraordinary.
While growing up in India, I was taught to put the needs of others over mine. A good woman is a giver, she looks exhausted and drained in looking after her family. Sacrifice is her biggest virtue – it is expected of her. I remember the ultimate bechari — poor thing — mothers of many Bollywood films. Everyone else has entitlement over her. She gives up her dreams and aspirations to serve her family. She is not sure of what she wants. Over time she does not know who she really is. When I had cancer, I had time away from my family. I could not have visitors during chemotherapy. It was the first time in my life that I was alone. Only then did I begin to ask myself what it is I want my life to be. I invested in transformative education. That was the beginning of my journey to self-love. Initially, it was awkward to watch a film or eat alone in a restaurant or to even say no to a request. I pushed past that to ensure that I loved and nurtured myself. That was the game-changer. So, when you ask me if I feel loved now, my response is yes, I do. I learned to love myself. These days, I feel immensely loved. Really, I had love all along, which I took for granted. Love that I never saw because I was blinded by this need for receiving it from a particular relationship in a specific way.
An uncomfortable truth about Indian culture is that abuse is normal. Both men and women allow it to continue. How do we begin to change that?
Most of us do not have clarity about what is considered abuse. I would think that physical violence is the only form of domestic abuse until I had my own experiences of it mentally, verbally, emotionally and financially. Non-physical abuse has a long-term impact on the victim’s mental health. It is very traumatizing even though there are no physical scars to establish that. We need more victims to share their stories. Most victims want to hush it up as they are afraid of facing the blame and shame that comes with it. To bring about any change, we need to first establish that there is a need for it. The numbers determine the urgency. I urge victims to share their stories. Sharing our stories is not about targeting an individual or a family, it is about helping others [who are going through] harsh experiences, gain the courage to set boundaries, to seek help, to break free from a life of torture. It is about taking a stand and leading the way for others who want to break free but do not know how to. It is about being a voice to the lawmakers of a country that change is warranted.
[Read Related: On Domestic Violence: Model Minority, Private Pain]
Talk to us about your “Be Your Own North Star” program. What inspired you to create it?
As a child, I would often lay on a wooden cot in our courtyard and be fascinated counting the stars in a clear night sky. I loved the idea that unlike the moon, they had their own light. I read stories of sailors lost at sea. The North Star gave them direction and they would find their way again. This thought inspired me to name my transformative educational program “Be Your Own North Star.” It is about tapping into our inner wisdom for direction in life instead of letting others control us and get what they want out of our lives.
When I wrote my memoir and shared my story as a speaker, I was shocked to discover that abuse against women is a global pandemic and not restricted to the Indian sub-continent alone. Women’s abuse is a global issue. Through my life experiences I realized that a woman going through abuse, or for that matter, anyone going through abuse, is totally divorced and disconnected from themselves. They are confused and lost. The North Star program is a journey back to our true selves. In this program we get to take inventory of where we are in life and create a road map to what we truly desire. We learn to acknowledge ourselves. We give closure to anything that is draining us and take responsibility for our own decisions and actions. We acquire tools and practices to deal with any breakdowns in life and be unstoppable.
What do you want to say about the importance of holding onto dreams?
Dreams are our personal visions. They are powerful moments when we snap out of our reality to see what life could be. They are our sanctuary, our personal sacred space, made of hope and positive thoughts. One should never give up on their dreams. They are powerful tools of manifesting and hold the key to our way out of a life of abuse and misery. Our dreams are a space where we communicate authentically with the Universe and get clear about what it is that we want. Dreams were all that kept me going during my darkest times. I was like a bird in a cage who chose not to give up dreaming of flying in the clear blue skies. If you want to give up living your life on other people’s deadlines and ultimatums, if you want to create your life by design, if you want to make your own reality, dream on.
When you look back at your life, do you have any regrets?
I am grateful for life. There are no regrets. If I made a difference in just one more life other than mine, it was well worth the roller-coaster ride.
“The Second Wife” recently hit the number one international bestseller list on Amazon in the category of Divorce and Separation. The book is now available for purchase at Barnes & Noble.