I had always connected sexual assault with race. The rape or sexual assault survivor was either a fair woman who had handled her experiences with silence and strong grace or it was an African American woman, who bitterly got through her experience and now stood like a steel wall, helping others to block out the hurt. A sexual assault victim was not an 11 year old South Asian.
Obviously, as I grew, I began to understand the complexities that come with sexual assault, the variations between class, gender, and ethnicity. I began to realize how differently we all perceive and persevere in the face of this act that strips us of power. For so long, I truly believed that sexual assault did not happen to us –it was a western phenomenon. So when I finally realized that it did happen to people in my community, I started to question my own experiences and what did or did not happen to me. However, the one thing that always made me dismiss my own experience was the concept of consent.
Whenever we talked about consent – we talked about how ‘no means no’, how a girl drunk at an after party is not giving any form of consent. We talked about how silence is not consent. What we never talked about was how not knowing was not consent either. I never said no. I said yes, because he chose me out of all the other girls. I was the special one. He trusted me enough to not ‘tattletale’ to the grownups. I was on an adventure that only big kids went on. It wasn’t until much later I realize that I wasn’t special – I just kept my mouth shut.
What I didn’t know at that time was what his body’s reactions meant. What I didn’t know was that this was not a game, no matter what he told me. I had no concept of sex in my mind; I, a sheltered awkward 10 year old, desperately wanting to be special, to be chosen from the rest. To be fair (which is the last thing I want to be in regards to him) – he was an isolated 15 or 16 year old, so I doubt he knew what he was doing either.
All throughout my early teenage years – I held on to the fact that I was old enough, mature enough to know what I wanted. And I had said yes. I had encouraged it. It is only when I see the 11 year old girls around me right now that I want to slap my younger self. An 11 year old girl longs to find a place where she can belong. An 11 year old girl recites facts about religion, culture, and boys without understanding what they mean. An 11 year old girl does not know what it means when a boy runs his hand down her shirt – touching places that have only just started to develop.
When I finally got comfortable with the fact that my own experience might be something akin to sexual molestation – I started telling stories about what ‘my friend’ went through to my group of friends– creating a person to help share my own story without the personal touch. I wanted other people to tell me whether what my ‘friend’ had gone through was sexual assault or not. Just like when I was 11 years old – I longed for external validation. However, instead of a response on whether it was a consensual relationship or some sort of molestation (which was what I was looking for), I had girls came up to me saying they had gone through something similar – an older uncle, a long distant cousin. I felt like the biggest hypocrite during this time. Here they were- girls brave enough to share their experiences from their mouths, whilst I hid behind an imaginary friend. Here were girls who had not said yes – some who had the guts to go up to their mothers afterwards and protect themselves. It was such a slap in the face. I never felt like more of a weakling and hypocrite. So I stopped. I stopped talking about it with others. Instead, I carefully constructed the persona of a blissfully innocent girl living a life free of boys.
But things like this never leave you. I spent countless Ramadan praying that Allah would forgive me for what had happened. The guilt crushed me. I was not brave enough to share my story. I was not brave enough to admit that I was hurt by what had happened. I used Islam in a terrible way to cover up my emotions. I thought that adhering to strict guidelines around hijab or gender interaction would make the past go away. However, whenever someone complimented my religiosity, I felt more and more dirty and guilty. I was using the words of Allah to hide from my own past and feelings. It wasn’t until much later when I truly opened my heart to the words and limitations of Allah that I realized how they are designed to help us navigate our emotions and deconstruct our past.
I tried very hard to push away what I had experienced at 11. At one point, I thought it was finally over – that I could move on. I rarely had to see the guy, and I had turned out normal, right? It wasn’t until people my age started to seriously talk about marriage that it all came rushing back in. I was not normal. I had isolated myself as much as I could from other people in fear of falling into a situation where I was blinded by other people’s approval. I was terrified of being used.
The thing is, when I was isolating myself from meaningful relationships, it all felt normal. I never thought of myself as odd or out of place. It is only now when I’m trying to open up to other people that I realize how jumpy I am for lack of better terms. I have a hard time with anyone touching me for longer than thirty seconds. I feel anxiety swirling in my stomach every time I have to talk to a male. If I’m alone with a male, especially one that is older than I am, I start panicking inside.
The worst part of it all is the fact that I can’t look at a younger girl and older guy interacting without my mind travelling to different places. It makes me sick to my stomach. I want that innocence back. I want to be able to trust the fact that someone finds me special for something other than keeping my mouth shut. I want to be to be able to stop feeling dirty and hypocritical all the time. But there is still a part of me that can’t let go, a part that distrusts any relationship. The prospect of marriage – of opening up to someone not just physically but also emotionally causes me to freak out. By suppressing my emotions and feelings for such a long time, I feel like I’ve killed any sense of self-worth I have. When I imagine contributing to a marriage, I come out inadequate every time.
Obviously my story is not over – I still battle inadequacy, guilt, and feelings of hypocrisy. I’m still struggling with trying to move past the barriers I’ve set for myself unknowingly. However, in writing out my story, I want to stress the importance of deconstruction for young people who face issues like this.
Knowledge of sexual molestation and assault was extremely important for my journey. Like I mentioned in the beginning of this piece- the initial knowledge of sexual assault I had was somehow tied to race because people in my community refused to talk about it. I was led to believe that hijab is adequate enough to heal the gaping wounds of girls who were forced to grow up much faster than they should have. It was only when I started to search for the true meaning of hijab and modesty rather than accepting the rudimentary definition that was given to me at a young age that hijab helped me navigate my experiences. It took me a long time to move past hijab as a means of stopping harassment to hijab as my devotion and submission to God.
As I mentioned before, I hid behind religious symbols and rituals in an attempt to move past or hide my emotions and actions. By clinging to old cultural meanings of religious symbols and rituals, I was hindered in my ability to understand my own experiences. I had to first attempt to break apart the old dogmatic definitions in order to come closer to Allah and closer to a mentally healthier version of myself. This sounds simple enough but trying to break dogmatic understanding of religion when you’re mentally and spiritually weak inside is one of the hardest thing to do.
The other reason I share my story is because I recognize the importance of getting experiences like mine out there. It is important that other girls who have gone through a similar experience understand that they aren’t alone. It is also important that other people that don’t understand what this experience entails recognize how religion and race structures make each sexual assault experience different and the problems that those who have experienced sexual assault face socially, physically, and spiritually. It is important that people understand how muddy and confusing sexual assault experiences can be, especially when those experiences happen as such a young age. There is a big misconception that victims of sexual assault ‘know’ instantly that they have been assaulted. It is not always that obvious and the lines are not always clear.
At the end of the day – we need to have the tough discussions about topics like this. As I say this, I’m well aware of how challenging it is. As much as I want to live in a world where victims of sexual molestation and assault can share their experiences in a meaningful way – I know that I myself am not ready to share my experience with my family and friends. A couple of years ago, I wasn’t ready to share my story anonymously on the internet so I am moving forward (somewhat). The excuses or ‘reasons’ I give myself for staying silent have become more and more complicated. And I am not entirely sure how many of them are actually legitimate.
The reality is that in order to truly understand the problems of individuals who have gone through these experiences, the individuals themselves have to share their own narratives (beyond the internet). In order of individuals to share their narratives, they have to feel like they are safe, which is hard when no one truly understands your problems. It is a vicious cycle and I have no idea how we’re going to break out of it. The only thing I do know is that we have to because dealing with these issues alone is like drowning. I need my community to help me but as I struggle to take breaths, I don’t know how they can.
Asiya* is a 22 year old Muslim Canadian who researches the intersection between gender, feminism, and Islam.
*To protect the identity of the writer, Asiya has been used as a pseudonym.