Breaking the Silence

*** Trigger Warning ***

A few months ago, I wrote about my writing being performed for the Young Muslim Voices series by Voices. It was a major milestone for me, and though I alluded to the content of a ‘A Letter to Bengali Mothers’, I hadn’t directly named the subject I had explored. I’m still hesitating right now, as I write, to speak openly on a platform that can be viewed by just about anybody.

Interestingly, I contributed a blog post at work, an organisation that I have since quit, where I openly explored my written piece. I was grateful, and extremely relieved, to receive praise, but, most importantly, to not be treated with such a degree of sympathy that can only elicit feelings of self-pity, and, dare I say it, any doubts as to my competency and subsequent credibility. When I tell you what I wrote about, you may wonder why I worried about anyone doubting my competency and credibility. I say it… because that has, at times, been an unfortunate result. The latter months of 2019 taught me that my vulnerabilities can be weaponised against me to question my credibility if I raise a number of issues unrelated to my trauma… though the lack of overlap and clear distinction led me to recognise that this could potentially be what is popularly known as ‘gaslighting.’ Nevertheless, I know that most people are good, that I cannot be held to account for the actions and views of others, and that I can only do what I had intended to do with my writing – reach out to Bengali mothers as well as countless other South Asian and Muslim mothers on an issue that is frequently deemed as taboo, so that we could take those steps towards destigmatising an issue that has significantly affected children and young people.

young muslim voices

So, what did I write about?

Well… I wrote about child sex abuse.

When I originally wrote about this, just the thought of writing that sentence repulsed me. I couldn’t seem to say it or write it without the urge to cover and shield my body. I couldn’t seem to think about it without feeling powerless.

And now? At this very moment? I no longer feel powerless. Quite the opposite – I feel empowered, I feel… fine. Strangely content. If I could have told 8-year-old me that one day I will be able to look the truth in the eye and not feel in any way debilitated, she would feel relieved and possibly cry tears of joy, though most of what I did every night before I went to sleep, as a child, was cry.

So, when, who, where, and all the other W’s, right? Well, I’m not there yet. I can’t bring myself to list all the incidents. Detailing what happened requires a very specific frame of mind that I am not yet to ready to inhabit on such a huge platform. But the who? The person who I considered my ‘Protector’ was the one who I ended up needing protecting from. Who would have thought that nearly 20 years later, the place that I had thought would provide protection ended up being the one place I needed protection from?

I had an unpredictable and tumultuous childhood, witnessing domestic violence, being bullied in primary school, and being sexually abused. I cried almost every day during my childhood. I couldn’t perceive the thought of reporting ‘him’ to an authority figure. Those who experienced ‘family issues’ were considered in a negative light by my classmates, for which we can only assume is a result of internalised stigma. What about my teachers? They said nothing while I was being bullied, so why would I trust them to care about me? I had no one to go to, no one who could lighten the burden I should never have shouldered.

Before ‘it all happened,’ my mother, brother and I had a lengthy holiday in Bangladesh which opened up my eyes to the possibility of adventure. I was desperate to live a full and exciting life, so, once I returned, and ‘it all happened,’ nothing could destroy my relentless zest. And friendship was an essential ingredient to securing that dream. I kept tight-lipped. I was powerless to change what was happening at home, but I would do everything, come hell or high water, to make sure that everything outside my home was the life I aspired for. I traded my silence for my longing for adventure and friendship.  

I look back and wonder how I survived the wreck of it all, but I consider myself lucky, perhaps much luckier than other victims. I was able to derive a few, but magnificent, sources of comfort – Islam, my grandmother… and books. Islam brought me peace and a best friend in Allah (SWT). My grandmother was my kindred spirit. The moment I laid eyes on her, I think we both knew that we loved each other. I knew there was something missing in my life before meeting my grandmother, but I could never quite put a finger on it. The moment I met my grandmother was the moment that I finally discovered love. And the moment that I stepped inside Watney Market library (the original one, that is), I was Samwell Tarly entering the Citadel without the unfortunate realisation that it isn’t quite what it’s cracked out to be. My curiosity and openness to experience could be felt in my relationship with books as a child, I read philosophy (and with much shock when I read up on Machiavelli), Asterix and Obelisk, Harry Potter, Islamic books and even books on textiles. And, of course, reread Matilda around a million times. I was free-spirited, and refused to limit my reading to any specific genre. I feel so grateful that, despite everything, I was blessed with such an abundance of love and joy. It would never define me.  

matilda reading

But it did affect me. In my second year of university, in the midst of a court case, I had to disclose what happened to CAFCASS. I cried in my room afterwards, and by night, I lay in bed reflecting on everything that was done to me during my childhood. Processing it as an adult was completely different to processing it as a child. After each and every incident, I had been able to conjure hope. I was, and still am, a rapid brainstormer. For one single problem, I was able to generate ten different ideas with the determination to execute these ideas one after another should one fail. Ideas gave me life as well as joy. After all, where there are ideas, there too shall be hope. How could I remain sad in the face of so many possibilities? But at the age of 20, during that one single night, I ran out of ideas.

I woke up the next day in a room as dark as my mind feeling everything and nothing all at once. I started missing my lectures and the few that I attended left me feeling physically exhausted. The effects of depression can be just as physical as it is emotional, who would have thought? I didn’t know the name for what I was going through at the time though, and I wouldn’t know until Deepika Padukone shared her story and I have to thank her so much for doing so as it led me to therapy. By the grace of God, before my second-year examinations, I began praying and rebuilt my strength. It was also the most content I’ve felt in my life and I don’t know if I’ll ever reach such a level of clarity and peace ever again in my life. Finally, I started getting out of bed and began revising for my exams – though, in hindsight, I should have deferred my studies for the next year. I realised that my fear of failure and desire for accomplishment was greater than anything. I was back.

Which brings me to now. So… why now? There’s a lot at stake. I know that many lives could possibly be affected by my silence. I know that by speaking out, I can encourage others to take a stand and break the silence. There are decades long stigma to shed, stigma that has eroded our Islamic values of speaking out against oppression, oppression which has been perpetuated by cultural patriarchal systems that our silence serves. And when culture walks in the room, religion packs up its bags and leaves. We have work to do in our communities dear mothers, daughters, and sisters of Islam and we do it together to build a safer world for every girl and for every child.   

Speak up, speak up, speak up, until we no longer have to speak up.

Written by Sophia Ismaa


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46 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this Sophia. I understand how hard it just have been to do so. May Allah reward you and give you the strength to continue providing a place for others to gain courage from.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know you’re not asking for sympathy, just a platform to share your story, but I am sorry you went through these horrible things and I am so happy you have the courage to confront them now. It also breaks my librarian heart to imagine a young girl borrowing Matilda over and over. It’s a fantastic book, but you must have related to her so much. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Shayne, I really appreciate your support and kindness. 💛 I love Matilda, she was the first character that taught me I’m not alone, and I guess I found my personal Miss Honey in my grandma. Thank you for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have always loved reading your writing, and I wish I could have heard your piece performed!

    Thank you for sharing such a brave story, and I too hope that it will inspire many more people, as it inspired me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a beautiful post! Thank you got sharing this post and I can only imagine how hard it can be.

    I’ve always looked up to you as a great role model and this only proves me correct 😊

    I pray that inshallah more people will come out and speak put about what has happened to them ❤️

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  5. Oh Sophia, thank you for being vulnerable and letting us into your life. The commonality of these experiences is simultaneously validating and saddening. You are inspiring; your tenacity to heal, while trying to encourage others, is something to be so proud of 💕.

    Like

    1. One of the things I heard when I pursued the case from a detective is that it’s a recurring theme. It’s heartening to know that Muslim women are coming forward, but still upsetting that it happens more than we know. I really hope that I can do more to bring it to the forefront, especially through community work.

      Thank you so much. 💛

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  6. Well Soph, you truly are an inspiration. I know the difficulty of reconciling with childhood trauma. It’s very brave of you to share it with the world in an effort to help others. Keep inspiring ❤ ❤ ❤

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  7. It took me a long time to get to this, but I just have to say I’m so sorry you had to deal with abuse, and so proud of you for being brave. You were brave when you opened up, got up and went back to your life. And you were brave opening up here for us. I know we have never met face to face, but I love you!

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  8. i don’t think I could ever really be as strong or as brave as you.
    i always thought of you as such a happy bubbly girl. but who would have known you had such a big part to you hidden away. but I guess, that’s all in the past now. you’ve turned out beautifully in spite of all that you’ve faced. I’m sure, you have and will continue to inspire whoever comes across you. i hope your tomorrow is just full of love and happiness. thank you for sharing this. and I’m sorry, once again like for that time.
    wishing you the best 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much, I’m sure you’re braver and stronger than you think you are. 🙂

      If I had a penny for every time someone described me as bubbly… 😂. Thank you so much for your words of support and confidence in me, I really appreciate it (and don’t worry about thing, that’s in the past). 🌟

      Like

  9. I’m so sorry you had to go through this Sophia, but you are incredibly brave for sharing and breaking the silence. Congratulations on having your poetry performed too, that must have been such an empowering achievement. You deserve it for being so inspiring. May you continue to find hope in Islam and in books. Take care ❤️ X x x

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    1. Thank you so much, I appreciate your thoughtful words. It wasn’t poetry, it was a letter that I wrote that I was performed, a call to action. Thank you, and thank you for reminding me to continue to find hope in Islam and in books. 💛💛

      Liked by 1 person

  10. During the years of my career as a probation officer that I carried a sex offender caseload, I was flabbergasted and dismayed by how common, widespread, stigmatized, and hushed-up that child sex abuse was and continues to be here in America, and I know that in some communities it’s even worse. Good on you for speaking up, Sophia!

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    1. I think each community has its own barriers, and I find that black and south asian communities to be quite similar in our approach, though I think black communities are more open to addressing the issue. I think with my community, it’s the issue of “what will people say?” that’s prevalent in our minds when, in reality, Islam encourages us to stand up against oppression. There’s a clear religion v culture clash, and I hope, in this case, that many more Muslim and South Asian families and communities will remember this. At the same time, I think in western predominantly white spaces, particularly in workplaces (including charities tackling child sex abuse) that aren’t connected to law enforcement, the stigma remains because as much as they advocate for breaking the silence, the treatment of adult survivors in the workplace ensures that survivors feel stigmatised (I’m speaking from experience with regards to this). So, other than law enforcement authorities, much needs to be done collectively as a society to tackle stigmatisation in all of its varied forms.

      And thank you for your support. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for sharing your story, Sophia. It must have taken infinite courage and internal dilemmas and you are a really brave woman. Child sex abuse is horrible and disgusting and no one should ever go through anything like that. As someone who is still coming to terms with something that happened to me, this powerful story really resonated with me. I hope you are able to smile through this mess and will find comfort in books! I really love HP and Matilda too 🙂

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    1. You put it so succinctly. Thank you so much for your words of support. It makes me so happy to hear that it’s resonated with you because that’s the whole reason why I wrote this. I hope you’re able to talk about it one day, if you ever need to talk, do please email me – ismaas145@gmail.com. Thank you for reading. 💛

      Liked by 1 person

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