Getting cancer proved to be the wake-up call that Shirin Ariff was looking for all along. 

After enduring years of emotional, financial and verbal abuse from her husband, his response to her getting sick was the final straw: he simply didn’t care.

“He misused the concept of karma. He’d say; ‘this is your karma coming back at you or your parents’ karma. Bad things happen to bad people. That’s why you’ve got cancer.’” To compound the matter, he also controlled her finances, and refused to pay for a necessary injection. Then when she finally went into surgery, he went on vacation, leaving the children behind to fend for themselves.

[Getting cancer] was a gift. It actually rattled me out of the spell that I was under. I felt like I wasn’t good enough, that I had to put up with this, that I didn’t have another choice,” she says. “It limited me from thinking of other possibilities, even though I was an educated girl.”

While in the hospital, Ariff summoned the courage to leave. “When I was facing the fear of death, then the fear of; how am I going to live my life without him? how will I pay my bills?–it became very insignificant,” she says. “I thought, well, let me just jump and see what happens. I took small steps every day, and since then, the world has been opening up to me.”

Shirin Ariff

Ariff recounts her harrowing story in a new book, The Second Wife: Seduced Into Slavery. It tells of how she was compelled to remarry after her first marriage fell apart in the wake of her husband’s addiction. When she went on to remarry a man living in Canada, that’s when her life truly took a turn.  “There was a lot of mental, verbal and emotional abuse,” she remembers. “It messed up with my head. I was not able to think for myself. I didn’t have the discernment to think of whether it was right or wrong.” The book shows what happens within an abusive relationship, but it also reveals the resilience that Ariff was able to cultivate in the midst of the pain.

Since releasing the book, a lot of women have approached her and disclosed their own stories of abuse. “They say; ‘don’t say it to anybody.’ It’s because they’re afraid of what people will say,” she says. “That’s the first stigma to break. I have put aside that fear of what people are saying and thinking. Only I know what I went through. What I am standing for is freedom for other women who are going through this, that’s bigger than what people say.”

Ariff believes that we need to hold space for those who are experiencing abuse; and to listen, without judgment, while they say what they need to. “Make her aware she doesn’t have to live her life this way. Don’t tell her what to do, but have the conversation that she deserves better, and that there are resources available. “Just that is enough to start things for that person.”

Ariff’s life looks very different now. “It’s very busy; I have four kids and I have a lot to do in a day. I’m don’t have any support, no co-parent, and there’s a lot of work. Sometimes I struggle with the bills and it’s physically exhausting. However, I’d rather deal with this–than deal with abuse and have someone else pay my bills. This is not that stressful. I’m in a better place; my heart feels good, my head feels good. I feel good about myself.”

Finally, she feels heard. “When there are other people communicating with me, saying that reading this released them, or gave them the courage to share their stories; that’s very fulfilling for me. I didn’t go through this for nothing if it’s helping someone out. I had a victory over abuse.”