Updated: Jun 25
| This is the 448th story of Our Life Logs |
My story began before I was even born, when the traditional values of the Pakistani culture sunk into the hearts and minds of my parents—separately, of course. They didn’t get married until sometime in the 1970s. But each grew up in Pakistan, and each moved to London in the 60s, and each was suited to one another in their arranged marriage. About a decade later, they had me. I was born in November 1980 in Hackney, London.
I was born as the first and eldest daughter, followed by two boys shortly thereafter. There was a big difference between how my parents treated me and how they treated my brothers. In the Asian culture, the boys are treated like princes who can do no wrong! The girls have to do everything for the men and women are less respected—at least, that’s how it was in my family. There were rules and cultural expectations about the clothes I could wear. I found it hard to fit myself into the boxes and to do what was expected of me. As a teenager, I wanted to be free to wear makeup and I didn’t want to wear a headscarf. I felt like it wasn’t for me.
It often felt like no one cared about me or my happiness. I was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused during my childhood by family and outsiders. I felt like I wasn’t in control of my own life or my own body, and I lived with so much fear. I was afraid of strangers. I was afraid to try new things. I was afraid to do anything wrong lest I endure the screams and slaps of my parents.
Now, when I was 10, I visited Pakistan and, in hindsight, I think this was when my family first arranged my marriage. It was just a matter of waiting until I was old enough, as this is usually what happened. I was betrothed to one of my cousins who lived in Pakistan, this being the only time we had ever met.
When I was about 16, I’d agreed to an arranged engagement, even though it was something that I knew I didn’t want. I knew that I didn’t want to marry him. I had just finished my exams at the time and had my future ahead of me. I wanted to make my dreams come true, travel, explore, have fun, laugh and enjoy my life. The problem was, I didn’t know how to say no. This was what was expected of me.
I would have had to go to Pakistan to get married and would then spend the rest of my life there. I felt that Pakistan was a country that I didn’t belong in; after all, I had spent my whole life in London. I felt trapped and angry and had no one to turn to for support.
One night, which I remember vividly to this day, I had a premonition that I would die if I went ahead with the marriage. I would have to be a housewife and have children. Maybe lots of children. I would become a slave to my husband. But this was my nightmare. I knew that I was made for more.
Luckily someone would help me out just by uttering one sentence. In 1998, when I was 18, I opened up to one of my coworkers at the time. I remember sharing with her what was on my mind, speaking in circles about the disdain and terror I had felt about the marriage—
That’s when she said, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
Those words blew me away. I knew there were no religious or legal grounds to allow this to happen to me. It was just cultural expectations. She made me realize that I had choices and that I was in charge of my own life. I had never really heard those words, you don’t have to, at least, not directed at me. From that day on, I looked at my life differently. I had to dig deep to find the courage to say no.
It took me five years of my life to convince my parents that I didn’t want to go ahead with the marriage. I constantly told them no, I rebelled against them and refused. I even began dating someone else. But they still wanted me to get married to whom they chose. It was the hardest fight I have ever been through.
So, without their blessing, I focused on my French studies and started planning my escape. I worked hard both in my studies and job as I knew that I would need to save some money if I was going to leave. I was determined to move to France.
When I finished university in 2003, I left to go to France. While there, I phoned my cousin and broke off the engagement. We had been engaged for five years at that point. When I told him that I didn’t want to marry him, he said, “I don’t want to marry you either, I’m just doing what my mum wants.” I couldn’t understand why I would give my life over to someone who didn’t love and care about me. I knew that I wanted to be treated with respect and loved by my future husband. But for this decision, I was disowned and rejected by my family.
At the time, I was torn.
Living in France changed me and I started sewing my budding confidence. For the first time, I was able to be myself, breathe, and learn who I was. It was the start of my journey to independence. I spent a year there as an ERASMUS student and taught English classes to teenagers at a lycée.
Now, France is still just a place. It’s not a magical land that solves all problems. At the time, I think I was so overwhelmed with the “new me” that I lost sight of that. There was still work to be done in the depths of my soul. There were still broken pieces that needed to be mended. But, I guess I didn’t see it like that.
When I arrived back in London, I got married to the guy I had been seeing since 2000. I didn’t have any family with me at my wedding, just my best friend who was there as my witness. After a short ceremony, we went to watch Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood movie which had just come out and then went to Nando’s. We got on really well, however, he gave me false hope that we had a future together.
The relationship was great at the beginning, but my own emotional strain felt like a heavy burden. I continued searching for my own passions, healing the rejection from my family, and getting my confidence back. But, my husband didn’t like that I was changing. He couldn’t handle my ambition. In the end, he cheated on me numerous times, and we were divorced in 2009 after we’d been together for almost 10 years.
After that, I felt more abandoned and rejected than ever before. For the first time ever, I was totally alone—no family, no partner, just myself and a huge faith in the universe. What did I do? I turned to work. I went after my career and decided to be the best teacher that I could possibly be. I gave my everything and more to my students, even when that meant that there was very little left for myself. I was physically and mentally exhausted from trying to be positive all the time. I had many final straws, which I recognize as nudges from my soul to step up to a new version of myself.
I was estranged from my family for over 14 years. During that time, I went through so much personal rejection, abandonment, disagreements, struggles, and a lot of misunderstandings. But I knew that I had to follow my own path in life. I had sporadic contact with my sister and mum. We would contact each other on Eid or on my birthday. Most of the time, we weren’t talking and there was always a lot of anger. My extended family didn’t even know where I was. The saddest thing is, I missed a lot of celebrations such as Eid and Christmas, birthdays and new babies. I also missed the death of my favorite relatives and the chance to say goodbye.
During the years I was apart from my family, I worked hard to build my career so I had a solid foundation to support myself. I also spent that time healing and doing inner work with counselors, coaches, mentors, teachers, and I listened to the sounds and whispers of my own heart.
One core lesson I took from this time is that inner work always works. I worked on forgiving myself and forgiving my family, transforming anger into compassion, and learning to love my broken inner child. Through the tears and the hardest of days, I finally came to a place in my life where I could say the words, “I forgive you,” (albeit, with a shaky voice) and mean it.
All of this healing work enabled communication to start up with my family, without the violence that we had previously. And truly, my mended soul found healing in ways I never thought possible.
In 2015, I received a call from my mum saying that my dad was in the hospital and was going to die. I was able to be there with him over the seven weeks of his last moments, and we were able to forgive and release past hurts.
As a child, I always wanted to know that he loved me and that I was good enough. When he was dying, I recognized that he did. By this point, the family had realized just how bad the abuse and forced engagement situation was and welcomed me with open arms. I now have a much better relationship with my mum and was happy to reconnect with my two brothers and sister after not having much contact for so long. I am so proud of everything that they have achieved.
I am now running my own life coaching business called Life is Today Academy, where I help others who have been through challenging times. I use neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques to help people release negative emotions and follow their dreams.
And why do I do this? Why did I choose this path?
Because who I am is due to all that I went through and all that I have learned. I had a very traumatic childhood that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but I have learned not to follow others’ expectations. I always listen to my own heart and follow my own path and encourage others to do the same. Self-love is the most powerful and comforting thing that there is out there. If you fail, get back up and keep going. You always have second chances. You are always capable of love.
This is the story of Leila Khan
Leila Khan is an author, public speaker, self-mastery expert, teacher, and mentor of personal transformation. As a child, Leila experienced sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. When she was 16, her parents forced her into an arranged engagement, but she refused to be married. She was later married to her boyfriend but was divorced six years later. In the wreckage of this relationship, Leila was able to realize her self-worth and strength her confidence. She has written and self-published four books and a coloring book and runs her own life coaching business called Life is Today Academy. In her spare time, Leila enjoys going to the gym, kickboxing, swimming, ice skating, and crochet. She enjoys being outside in nature, traveling, meeting new people, and she also has a love of sports cars.
This story first touched our hearts on April 27, 2019.
| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: Colleen Walker |