Solicitor and artist Amani Haydar was forced to re-evaluate the whole system when her father murdered her mother in 2015.
Amani was five months pregnant with her first child and preparing to start parental leave from her job as a litigation lawyer in Sydney when her mother, Salwa, was killed at the hands of her father. Salwa was stabbed 30 times. She died at the age of 45. Haydar Haydar was convicted of his wife’s murder in 2017, as well as the wounding of his youngest daughter, Ola, who tried to stop the frenzied attack. He is serving a 22-year sentence.
Amani was left reeling. The eldest of four siblings and with just a few months before she became a mother herself, she had so many questions and dreaded the ordeal of the criminal proceedings that would follow. Specifically, she wondered how her father’s trial and his denial of guilt might alter any acknowledgement of her mother’s suffering, as well as the impact of the trauma for those left behind. Haydar had pleaded not guilty to murder, but guilty to the manslaughter of his estranged wife.
Intertwined with Amani’s grief was a defiant resilience. Before her father was sentenced, Amani used her Victim Impact Statement (VIS) to share an exchange she had with a midwife when her daughter was born.
“As I lay there exhausted but relieved, a kind midwife asked me, ‘Where is your mother?’ She had not read my file, which detailed what had happened and in which I was flagged as being at increased risk of post-natal depression. I answered, ‘She was murdered in March by my father’.
“The midwife looked at me with pity, but, by that point, I’d gotten used to awkward conversations and I continued, ‘I am so happy to have a daughter. I am from a family of strong women.’”
The reality of new motherhood demanded a level of pragmatism of which Amani was capable, but it was not easy. She took in her two sisters, who were forced to leave the home that had become a crime scene, and departed work sooner than her planned maternity leave date. While her immediate family received help from the Homicide Victims’ Support Group, there were also challenges concerning how much the sisters were able to share about what had happened as they waited for their father’s trial. It would take two years, and two juries to be empanelled and dismissed, before Haydar’s trial went before a lone judge.
Reckoning motherhood and a mother’s murder
Amani’s Instagram page is a visual treat, flooded with tears. Streaks of cobalt acrylic flow from the wide eyes of surreal faces and drops of aquamarine fall from the flushed cheeks of others. Her artwork is a showcase of vibrant, emotive subjects, with the occasional still life of native flowers poking out of an oriental-style vase or an inquisitive peacock craning its neck.
One of Amani’s most recent works, a self-portrait entitled “Insert headline here”, has been on display in Sydney as a finalist in the 2018 Archibald Prize. The likeness is spot on. Donning bright colours and seated in a black room, the painting depicts a woman, whose soft, steely face looks out into the far distance. Her gaze is cast from heavy grey lids, fixed on a distant point, resolutely staring out and into the truth. Instantly, Amani’s irrepressible sense of justice can be identified in this face.
In the Art Gallery of NSW, the artist soaks up the view of her portrait hanging among the other Archibald Prize finalists. School children gripping exercise books and lead pencils rush past. Some sit on the ground, beneath Amani’s artwork, answering questions about the exhibition on a lined page.
“I want to bring my kids here soon,” says Amani, now a mother of two toddlers. She is delighted that this sacred public space, where people are free to roam and learn, holds her story and that of her mother. Salwa is also pictured in the artwork holding a portrait of her own mother.
In the long days and months that have passed since Salwa’s murder, Amani has grappled with disgust, frustration and sorrow. She has meditated on the spiritual dimensions of forgiveness and what justice truly means. Last year, she wrote a thesis on the subject of crime, punishment and forgiveness through a trauma-informed lens for her Master’s Degree in Islamic Studies. Amani started the course at Charles Sturt University before the violent events that turned her life upside down and credits an academic regimen with helping her process the trauma.
“My studies have given me something that has been nurturing and quite philosophical,” she says.
“It was an opportunity for me to reflect in my own time and allowed me to connect with people who could answer questions that would go through anyone’s mind when going through a big life event.”
While the pursuit of learning about the dynamics of abuse and harm can be emotionally taxing, Amani says it has been cathartic in the same way as expressing herself through art. She has recently accepted several artistic projects commissioned by the ABC to illustrate stories about survivors of gendered violence and discrimination.
“I feel that knowing everything there is to know about a topic and understanding it on a very deep level is very empowering,” Amani says. “I believe it is the antidote to the disempowerment of being this passive person and having no real say.”
On being a victim who is heard
The VIS, while not considered evidence, was symbolic for Amani. It allowed her to reclaim her father’s trial as an opportunity for healing. If she had not resolved to treat the trial as something she could use for her own empowerment, she says the whole ordeal would have been unbearable.
Specifically, it was important for Amani to maintain a sense that her father’s trial was not a trial of the truth as she understood it. One way she dealt with this was to choose to not attend court on certain days, including when psychiatric evidence was being adduced.
Much of my dad’s trial erased my mum’s experience. It erased my perception of what happened.
“I felt that much of my dad’s trial erased my mum’s experience. It erased my perception of what happened. It erased the many years of emotional abuse she had experienced,” Amani says.
“An accused person is entitled to a fair trial, but they are not entitled to an audience and they are not entitled to have their narrative superimposed over the narrative of the person who is now deceased. There are sound legal reasons for things being done that way, but I think there is definitely space for improvement.”
Salwa was 13 years younger than her husband and had just moved from Lebanon to Australia when they got married. She had no immediate family in the country, no tertiary qualifications and no financial independence. It was only later in life that Salwa would find the opportunity to make a go of things on her own terms. At the time of her murder, she was working as a drug and alcohol counsellor and had commenced a university degree in community welfare.
Amani told the court that Western Sydney University had honoured Salwa’s memory by conferring a posthumous Bachelor’s degree.
“Walking up on the stage to accept her award at graduation was one of the proudest moments of my life, but she should have been there herself,” Amani said. “We should have shared that moment with her.”
Before her mother’s death, Amani says she held misconceptions about what kind of men were capable of abuse and murder. She assumed that emotional abuse was accompanied by obvious physical violence and had not believed her mother’s use of terms like “gaslighting” to describe Haydar’s controlling behaviour was anything to be concerned about. Amani recalls her parents’ relationship as turbulent and says they had come close to divorce on several occasions.
Emotional and psychological abuse is quite hard to identify unless you have been taught or trained to identify it.
“Part of what made it so difficult for my mum to describe what was happening … is the fact that emotional and psychological abuse is quite hard to identify unless you have been taught or trained to identify it,” Amani says.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, on average one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner in Australia. Numbers collected by activist group Destroy the Joint show that Salwa was the 30th of 80 women killed by a current or former partner in 2015.
In Amani’s view, the law has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to acknowledging insidious psychological and emotional abuse, which can be just as deadly but much harder to prove. She points to recent reforms in the UK that have seen controlling and coercive behaviour criminalised, including behaviour that causes a victim to fear that violence will be used against them. A 2016 review of domestic and family violence deaths in the ACT also has found that many victims did not experience physical abuse in the lead-up to their deaths.
“Contrary to public perception, not all abusers or DV perpetrators have a criminal history or history of violence,” Amani says. “We now know that verbal, emotional and psychological abuse can be as deadly and traumatic as physical violence.”
Considering this accepted knowledge about domestic violence, Amani is calling for laws on character evidence to apply differently in certain cases. She believes the opportunity given to Haydar to present evidence about his character (and potentially mitigate his sentence) speaks directly to the social challenges of identifying the danger her mother faced when she was alive.
“What frustrated me about the character evidence ties in with what we know about emotional abuse,” she explains. “My dad is highly educated; he has two master’s degrees; he had not previously been convicted of any crime; he has a very polite, respectful demeanour when he is talking to people.”
Advocating with art
Amani recently returned to work at MNH Legal, a law firm set up by her husband Muhammad Zreika, in Parramatta. In late 2017, she was also elected to the Board of the Bankstown Women’s Health Centre, which launched a campaign that took the message “Canterbury-Bankstown says no to domestic violence” to the sides of buses, shopping centres, and local pubs. In her spare time, she paints. Working from a makeshift studio at one end of the dining table in her home, what was once a hobby has become an expressive ritual.
There is so much of this story that I need to keep telling.
“There is so much of this story that I need to keep telling,” Amani says. “I use creative expression, art and a little bit of writing to keep telling those stories and engaging with them, because I think they need to be preserved to effect change.”
It is hard to pinpoint what makes Amani’s paintings so evocative, but the feeling that lives in the layers of her work draws people in, beckons them to question how a persimmon pallet could be so sad or strokes of hot pink so searing. Confident and complex, bold and bewildering, she projects the human qualities of spirit and mood onto a flat canvas.
“We are lucky that we have a system here in Australia where a woman’s life matters enough, despite all these systemic issues, for a trial to take place, for someone to be arrested,” Amani says.
“I want to use my lived experience and the lived experience of other people who are disenfranchised or marginalised to improve things and make sure their stories are heard, recognised and given a voice.”
Follow @artbyamani on Instagram
HELP IS AT HAND
Contact the 24/7 phone national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service on 1800 RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au/get-help
Main image: Jason McCormack