*** 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.’ This was done to me by Suzan Ismail, Team Manager of Letting the Future In, NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), Camden, London. 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.
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.
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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