'Victimhood to survivorship': Amani Haydar shares her story at domestic violence conference

Amani Haydar at CORE Community Services' annual Domestic Violence Conference at Fairfield RSL. Picture: Chris Lane
Amani Haydar at CORE Community Services' annual Domestic Violence Conference at Fairfield RSL. Picture: Chris Lane

"Nothing will make up for what you have done. No sentence will undo the permanent damage that you've done to our lives."

Amani Haydar victim impact statement at her father's trial - neither as profound nor as articulate as she would have liked - signals exasperation when she reads back over it.

But it was an important moment in terms of her personal shift from "victimhood to survivorship."

In March 2015, Amani 's mum, Salwa Haydar was murdered by her dad in her home at Bexley, after many years of emotional and psychological abuse. Two weeks prior to the murder she had asked him to move out and was taking steps towards seeking a divorce.

"I felt suspended between the elation of having finally spoken and fear of what would happen if I ever spoke again. But when I next had the opportunity to speak in a safe place I took it, and again, and again. Fear receded a little each time," she said.

"Somewhere through that process I discovered the power of storytelling. I learned how to be the narrator rather than the homicide victim, the witness for the prosecution, the eldest daughter of the deceased."

Amani shared her story as part of CORE Community Services' annual Domestic Violence Conference at Fairfield RSL last week.

The lawyer, artist, mum and advocate for women's health and safety has since gone on to use her legal knowledge and creative skills to tackle violence against women and advocate for victims of crime.

At the time of her mother's murder, she didn't know the risks and effects of emotional and psychological abuse.

"I had certain stereotypes in my mind about what a dangerous man was...and my polite, conservative dad with two masters degrees, who never drank, didn't seem to fit that stereotype," she said.

"The normalisation of unhealthy relationships in everyday life and in popular culture had not equipped me to identify an abuser. My mum, on the other hand, was a counselor, and she named my father's behaviour for what it was...controlling and mean."

Amani, who is on the board at Bankstown Women's Health Centre, takes a multi-disciplinary approach to all of her advocacy so to not rely on just "one discipline for justice."

In 2018, her entry into the Archibald Prize (which was shortlisted as a finalist), was in response to her feeling like "violence was inescapable". Her painting was a self-portrait holding a photograph of her mother, who was holding a photograph of her own mother, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike while fleeing the southern villages of Lebanon.

"I found myself reflecting on the burden of trying to break that cycle. Those reflections led me to create the self portrait. For me it has been empowering to start finding ways to talk about what has happened," said Amani, whose exhibition The mother wound recently finished at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery.

"That doesn't mean that I have found closure or that the effects of my dad's violence have terminated. The emotional, psychological and financial consequences of the murder are ongoing. For example, I wasn't able to sell my mum's house and distribute assets of the estate until last month, even though she was the sole owner of that house.

"Despite this lack of progress, the storytelling process is an effective tool for combating the shame and taboo that victims are often made to feel about their experiences.

"At the core of storytelling is a desire to reconnect with the world and to do so safely. In Trauma and Recovery Dr Judith Herman describes reconnection as the third stage of recovery from trauma. Through storytelling victims and survivors build new relationships, develop a new sense of self and create meaning out of their experiences and 'in accomplishing this work, the survivor reclaims her world.'

"The best storytelling is that which builds a community and it is, in turn, a communal responsibility to make the space - in court rooms, media, schools and society - safe for diverse stories. That way, victims know that they are welcome and supported to reclaim their narrative and thereby reclaim their world."

The theme for this year's Domestic Violence Conference was "Research to Action" focusing on new research available and how it can be addressed in the field with several keynote speakers presenting including NSW Attorney-General and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Mark Speakman.

On Tuesday, Mr Speakman urged people to seek safety and support this festive season, which has historically coincided with a spike in domestic violence.

Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data shows domestic violence assaults increase over summer with 35 per cent more incidents recorded in December than in July.

National sexual assault and domestic violence counselling service 1800 RESPECT also recorded a 15 per cent boost in calls in December 2018, compared with the average intake over the previous six months.

"The summer season is a happy time of celebration for most families, but sadly the statistics tell us many will actually be suffering violence at the hands of a family member over December and January," Mr Speakman said.

"We want to send a strong message of support for victim-survivors so they know there are services here to help them when they're ready to take that courageous step, while reminding perpetrators that they too should seek help now before police come knocking on their door."

Mulgoa MP Tanya Davies said: "Unfortunately, the celebratory season can quickly turn into one of tragedy, with many suffering at the hands of a violent partner or family member. There are many great events happening around the Mulgoa electorate area during the festive season, so please be safe, report any unusual or suspicious behaviour to police, and seek support from specialist services for yourself or someone you might be concerned, about, if needed."

If you, or someone you know, has experienced domestic or family violence, the services available to provide support include:

  • 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) is a confidential information, counselling and support service.
  • NSW Domestic Violence Line (1800 656 463) is a statewide telephone crisis counselling and referral service for women.
  • Men's Referral Service (1300 766 491) provide telephone counselling, information and referrals for men.
  • Link2Home (1800 152 152) can help refer women experiencing domestic violence to crisis accommodation.
  • Lifeline (13 11 14) is a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.
  • If you are in danger or in an emergency, always contact triple zero.