This article is Part 3 of an ongoing series of articles under the project, ‘The Silent Survivors: A Voice From The Violated’
Trigger Warning: The stories contain details of sexual abuse which some may find distressing. Whilst the stories are real. The names of the victims have been changed to protect their identity.
“You know, Fatima is always very quiet. She’s a very nice girl, never talks back and keeps to herself. I’ve never had any problem with her.” Growing up, I often heard people say this about me. My mother, my siblings, my friends, my teachers, everyone. To them, I was the most sensible and sorted person. I could do no wrong and nothing bad could have happened with me."
I was 3 years old. It was my family driver. I enjoyed going out and every time my parents went out, I went with them, even if it was just to get groceries. I liked getting ready and sitting in the car and looking at the beautiful sky. I liked the feeling of the cold window on my cheek and the cars zipping by. The driver, Zain, groomed me and became my friend. He would tell me stories, play with me, and buy me chocolates and lollies. My parents trusted him because he was seemingly a good person. He prayed on time, guarded his gaze, and never badmouthed anyone. He was also very nice with me and my siblings. According to my parents, he was a good driver, a good person and a good Muslim. So when we went out, and he suggested that they leave me with him in the car to play because I would get bored with them, they didn’t have to think twice. It was perfectly fine especially because he was my best friend. I didn’t mind it either. I would get to spend time with my friend.
It started with him showing me pornographic pictures. I never understood what it was, but I thought it was fine because Zain was showing it to me. He was my best friend. After a while, it moved on to inappropriate touching. I was a 3 year old who knew nothing about this. My mother had told me I shouldn’t show my private parts to anyone but that was it. This continued on for at least 1 year. I didn’t know what molestation was. I never told anyone, but one day, very suddenly, Zain was sent back to where he came from and nobody ever spoke of him again. Nobody spoke to me about the whole ordeal either. I was still confused. Was this a normal thing that happened with everyone? I had so many questions but nobody to ask them to. Who could I share this with? How could I share this when I didn’t know what this was? Even at that age, I blamed myself. It must be because of me. It must be because I wanted it to happen. I had all these thoughts running through my mind and nobody to discuss them with. I buried all of them deep within me, but you see, the cycle of abuse had just started. The trauma was just beginning.
I moved on and got busy with school. I really enjoyed going to school and had a knack for learning. I started going to an informal school at the age of 2. My siblings used to go to school and I didn’t want to be left behind. I was a shy girl who enjoyed reading and playing with barbie dolls. I would make up stories and then enact them with my dolls. I remember vividly that I subconsciously enacted the molestation but nobody noticed. “Oh, it's just Fatima playing with her dolls. Let her be.” During this time, I started getting sick. I started getting terrible migraines on a daily basis. My parents took me to every doctor they could find. CT scans, EEGs, MRIs, everything short of a lobotomy was done. They couldn’t find a reason for the migraines. How could they? It was psycho-somatic. The abuse was catching up to me and I didn’t realize it. I endured 2 years of constant throbbing headaches, vomiting, and not being able to see clearly due to the aura around my eyes that precedes a migraine episode. My family watched, helplessly, as there was nothing they could do. I still suffer from migraines, but have learnt to deal with them.
They Are All Out To Get Me
Little did I know that this was just the beginning. In fifth grade, I wanted to join art classes. I loved art and was always painting and drawing at home. One of my friends used to go to these classes and I wanted to go too. My mother decided it would be a good place for me, and because I was so quiet, she hoped I would become a little talkative. My cousin brother, Saud was employed to provide transport for me. It was a 15 minute drive from my house. Saud was 25 years old at the time and he had nothing else to do, so he readily agreed. I’ve struggled with my eating habits all my life and at that age I was very skinny and a picky eater. He used to joke around and call me fat which really offended me. I wasn’t fat, so why was he calling me fat? I didn’t like it. Once while he was driving me to my art classes, he said, “looks like you’ve gained some weight,” to which I had replied in the negative. “It's your thighs, let me see if I can wrap my hands around them.” All those buried feelings came to the surface and I froze. I didn’t know what to do, how to react. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t give any “signals” to this man for him to touch me inappropriately. Why was this happening again? I felt intensely uncomfortable and disgusted. I reached home and locked myself in my room. This became a regular occurrence and went on for at least one year. Again, I told no one, I didn’t have the vocabulary. Having nightmares about this incident became a regular thing. I was constantly scared of men around me. I could never enter an enclosed space alone with my brother or even my father. One of my uncles would try to touch my chest inappropriately in the elevator, or anywhere where nobody could see him. This made me fearful of elevators. I would always take the stairs, and if I had to take the elevator, I would make sure he wasn’t there. I believed every man was trying to get me. I now realize that this was my first episode of PTSD. I had all the symptoms. Whenever we went out, I would be wary of men and never left my mom. Of course, there were telltale signs that something was wrong with me, but nobody understood them. I was very good at hiding things and keeping quiet.
As I entered by pubescent years, things went from bad to worse. I was a moody, shy, and an angry girl. I hated being a girl. I dressed in loose shirts and jeans, and didn’t have my ears pierced as per tradition. I hated anything that made me girly. I hated anyone who complimented me or called me pretty or cute. I believed it was because of this that I was always a target.
“I was constantly angry at myself, at my family, at my perpetrators and at Allah. If Allah truly loved me then why had He forsaken me? Why did He make me go through all of that? I was not an evil person, I was a child, how could He let this happen to me? Isn’t Allah supposed to be my protector?”
All of these questions circled around my mind. There was something about me, everywhere I went, there was some pervert who would either whistle at me, try to follow me around, or try to expose himself. Everyone noticed it. My sister and I would go to the same place, but it was I who would get groped or eve-teased. Why was this happening? Was it because I was “too pretty”? Did I send some kind of “signals”? Was there something about my face that just screamed something? I avoided going to places that I knew had too many men. During this time, I also had a stalker who called my house and said all kinds of nonsense. I didn’t know about it at the time. I remember my parents wouldn’t let me go anywhere alone. Some days, my mom would tell me she forgot to wake me up for school but my other siblings had gone to school. I hadn’t known that this man was threatening my parents and telling them he would kill me. Regardless, I started covering my face in an attempt to stop these incidents from happening, but it was pointless. I was continuously harassed by men on the streets. I was already wearing the abaya, but because of the perverted men, I decided to start covering my face and took up the niqab to feel a sense of safety. If my face wasn’t seen then obviously I wouldn’t call any unnecessary attention to myself, right? Wrong. The fact that I was wearing an abaya and niqab made no difference.
This Isn't A Big Deal Right?
Things were quite good at home and in other aspects of my life. My parents were very affectionate and tried to understand what was going on with me. I just wasn’t ready to talk, or rather, I didn’t know how to start this conversation. I didn’t understand that this was sexual assault because we have been taught that only rape is considered assault. Nobody even talks about molestation. And since this wasn’t rape, it mustn’t be a big deal. Then why did it feel like someone invaded my privacy?
I refused to pray. I refused to believe in a God who would let this happen to a little girl. Growing up, I loved fasting and praying and even memorized parts of the Quran at a very young age. But during my adolescence, all of the sexual assault became the reason for my distance from Allah. I would constantly lie to my parents and tell them I’ve prayed when I had not. I was angry all the time and picked fights at home. I hated myself and everything and everyone around me. As a result, my grades started dropping. I went from a straight A student to average. I stopped eating in an effort to get thin. I didn’t want to develop into a woman’s body. I knew if that happened, it would call more attention and I didn’t want that. I wanted to blend in with the boys and feel safe. I would go days without eating. I was skinny but I still suffered from major body dissatisfaction. Women who’ve been sexually abused tend to deal with body dissatisfaction in their adulthood.
Nevertheless, I buried all the feelings again. All the pain, the trauma, the anger, the disgust, everything. I tried to get a handle on things, my nightmares had reduced, my migraines had reduced, things were looking up. Then, at the age of 14-15, my cousin brother, Abdullah who was only a few years older than me, made it a habit to come to my house. At the time, I would usually be alone in my room while my mother would be in the kitchen or the other part of the house. He would usually come while I was asleep. I was a deep sleeper so I never realized that something untoward was happening. One day, while he was trying to put his hands all over me, I woke up. I was terrified at what was happening. I froze. I couldn’t open my eyes. I tried with all my might to pry my eyes open but I felt as if someone had sewn them shut. I couldn’t move. This happened a couple of times and made me very paranoid. I always felt that someone was always watching me. You know that feeling you get sometimes, when you can feel the hairs on the nape of your neck stand up? That was my life. I would never be able to take a long bath because I felt someone was watching me. I would always take a quick shower and wear clothes as quickly as possible. I was in constant fear and couldn’t bring myself to sleep. I would sleep only for a few hours and force myself to wake up. Once, I caught him pleasuring himself. He knew that I had seen him, of course that's what he had wanted. He wanted me to see him. Thankfully, I wasn’t wearing my glasses at the time so I couldn’t see very clearly but I know it happened. Because of all this, to this day, I am a very light sleeper. I wake up at the slightest of noise and then have trouble falling back asleep.
At this point, because of the barrage of assaults, I had started assuming that this is a normal thing that every girl has to go through. I am not a bad person, why is this happening only to me? I was dealing with changes in my body and because of not eating I was constantly dizzy. My body dissatisfaction took a turn for the worst when I started taking pills to further reduce my weight. My body mass index was dangerously low. I looked like a 9 or 10 year old girl rather than a 16 year old adolescent. I became quieter and would spend all my time in my room. I buried all those feelings deep within me and went on with my life. What else could I have done? It's easy to say, “Oh you could have fought back” or “ You should have shared it with your family” or “How could your parents not notice it, they must not like you very much”. I’ve had all these thoughts and more running through my head. These are easier said than done.
When a much older and stronger man has his hands around your thighs, there’s not much a young girl can do. You will freeze. That is your body’s normal reaction. With regards to my family, they tried to help but how could they help when they didn’t know what was going on? All my perpetrators continued coming to my house, they continued looking at me lewdly until I escaped to another room. Had my family known about this, they would have taken some action against them. I was just very good at hiding my feelings.
My relationship with Allah was still not great. I would fast during Ramadan and fulfill my prayers, but there was still something lacking. I still felt incomplete. I didn’t like this feeling. Maybe I still blamed Allah for everything. If everything is written and is Qadr, then why would Allah write this for me? Did He hate me this much? What have I done to deserve His wrath? I started blaming myself. It must be because I wanted it and that is why Allah is punishing me. This is how I reasoned with myself. I continued my prayers but they were more like a ritual that I just had to do but I wasn’t able to connect with Allah. I felt ashamed. How could I face Him after what I have done? This fear also meant that I couldn’t tell anyone else because if anyone knew then how could I face them? This was so shameful.
Seeking Answers in Psychology
Life went on, I finished my school and went on to study Psychology. Partly because I felt like I needed to help people and partly because I thought learning Psychology could help me understand myself better. There is an incident that is etched in my mind. I was maybe in Grade 1 or 2, I had a mentally challenged girl in my class, and my other classmates and sometimes even the teachers used to make fun of her. I didn’t like it and would get angry on her behalf. I fought with everyone in the class including the teachers. She had become my friend. I wanted to help her but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what developmental disorder she had or who treated her, but I knew that when I got older I wanted to help people like her. So there were multiple reasons for choosing Psychology. I remember telling my mom and my friends that I sometimes feel like I am not in my body and I am watching myself from the outside, like a film. Everybody around me thought that this was just something I said. I now know that this is termed Dissociation, which is very common among abuse survivors. I tried very hard to understand myself and everything going on in my mind. But nobody could help me, because nobody knew what had happened.
I went away for my further studies. I enjoyed my time studying and being with my friends. It opened up new avenues for me and new adventures. As a woman, when you go out into the world, unfortunately, there are going to be instances where you get teased or whistled at or someone might randomly start singing lewd songs when you pass by. I would automatically freeze in such situations and my friends would wonder why. I never had the guts to tell them because I didn’t want them to treat me differently or tell me that it was my fault. We’ve always learnt that women should be covered and properly dressed because if they’re not, men might do something to them and it will be the woman’s fault. I didn’t want anyone to point fingers at me so I was afraid to tell anyone.
“What if they tell someone and it ends up reaching my parents, what will they think? What if I tell someone and they start treating me like I’m “that kind of a girl”? What if I have to go to jail? What if my perpetrators send someone to kidnap me or kill me? What if they have pictures of me and they make it public? What if?” I had all these thoughts going on in my mind and just decided to let that part of my life go and just focus on the present.
As I was studying, I found out more about my personality and my thoughts and feelings. I was able to understand myself better and learnt that all that I was feeling is completely normal. I was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder coupled with major depressive disorder. I was unable to get any professional help because I was still not ready to talk about everything.
I was 20 years old when I finally shared this with my family. I had been dropping hints about it for some time but didn’t openly talk about it. The only reason I spoke about it was because I found out that my perpetrators were also abusers for some other members of my family. I knew that the only way the others would talk is if I started a conversation. I must say my family was not equipped to deal with it. They didn’t know how to react. I also didn’t tell them all the details. They still don’t know. I told them something had happened and these are the people who did it. They got real quiet. They didn’t want me to talk about it further and just sent those people away. I was expecting them to stand with me and talk things through and try to find out what had happened and even press charges but they did nothing. They tried to do their best but that wasn’t good enough for me. I was in a pretty bad shape. Worse than I had ever been. Very depressed and involved in certain forms of self-harm. I had stopped praying again. I was constantly crying, didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I didn’t have much to do at home so I would overthink everything and make it worse for myself. During this time, I started getting nightmares where my perpetrators were laughing and jeering at me. I was in a terrible state. I felt my family didn’t love me enough to do anything. They just let it go. I realize that this was difficult for them to comprehend. Society can be horrible and they were just trying to protect me. They tried to be understanding but they weren’t doing the best job at it. They avoided talking about this and about those people. They thought what they were doing was the best for me, but that just made me feel worse. They treated me like I was special and did everything I asked. This is what I was dreading, I didn’t want to be treated differently. I am the same person. I started crying and didn’t eat, didn’t want to get up. I just gave up on life. I knew that I needed to move away for sometime and focus on something productive. I had finished my Bachelor’s at this point so I decided to enroll in a Masters program.
I moved away for my education after a couple of months and everything changed for the better. I focused all my effort on my education and my happiness. I started doing a lot of extracurricular activities and focused on my mental health before anything else. I went to therapy regularly where I was able to deal with all the trauma. I let bygones be bygones and focused on my present and my future. After 21 years, I was finally happy.
All the trauma that I endured has shaped me to be the individual I am today. I am in a position where I can help others dealing with similar problems. I am highly empathetic because I can understand their pain. And I will never let anyone go through the trauma that I had to go through. I am able to deal with my disordered eating and my body dissatisfaction in a positive way. Do I still struggle with irregular eating patterns and body dissatisfaction? You bet I do. I refuse to weigh myself because I know that the number on the scale will affect me more than it should. Am I still wary of men? Yes and no. I have learnt to trust men, but I am still wary. I am hyper vigilant when it comes to strange men. But I no longer freeze. If a stranger tries to touch me or tease me, I make them rue the day they were born. I still have a lot of anger inside of me but I use it productively. I am still shy, an introvert but I understand myself. I know my strengths and my weaknesses. I know what I am capable of. My abuse does not define me.
I am very brave and a phenomenal woman. As for my abusers, I don’t see them anymore. They know what they did, they won’t admit it but they know they did it. Revenge is not something I desire anymore. I will be avenged by Allah.
One night, I got a dream that changed everything for me. I can't describe the feeling of peace that overtook me. I had never felt that sense of security and safety. It was as if Allah was telling me that things will get better. I will get better. I don’t need to worry about avenging myself. Not taking revenge doesn’t make me weak. If anything, it makes me stronger. It makes me stronger because I believe that Allah will not forsake me. He has not forsaken me. The nightmares stopped after that. I stopped hurting myself. I stopped thinking about death. I changed my life around. I was no longer a victim of sexual abuse. I am a survivor.
Note: This series of articles involves and is written in consultation with clinical psychologists and other industry professionals.
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