The news lately has been draining; my heart is heavy. Seeing what happened to Sarah Everard, reading all the Tweets from women who have been raped, assaulted, harassed, blamed, disregarded and dismissed. I took a small, but significant, break from social media and came back to #NotAllMen and the harrowing stats that 97% of women in the UK have been sexually harassed. In some ways, it doesn’t surprise me – every woman I know has faced it at least once in their life, myself included. But ask a man and he will tell you he doesn’t know a rapist, he doesn’t know any man who will ever hurt a woman, and he doesn’t know any woman who’s been abused or harassed.
I am exhausted from watching everything unfold Sarah being blamed for walking alone even though she did all the things we are told to do: from calling her boyfriend and wearing bright clothes to walking on lit streets. Reading about other women coming forward with their stories breaks my heart but it also reminds me of my own experiences.
We expect it.
The experiences that shape us into automatically recognising that flashing neon red danger sign in our minds, the pounding of our hearts, the cold sweat beading down our back, and shaky palms as we walk past a group of men, or hear footsteps behind us – even if it is broad daylight. We expect to feel the fear when we see a man looking at us for a beat too long at the bus stop, the touch of an erect penis on the tube when we’re on our way to uni or work, the jokes from that co-worker making us uncomfortable but we force the laugh anyway.
The first time I was approached on the streets, I was in year seven. This man, perhaps in his twenties or thirties, told me I was cute. He asked me if I wanted to go to a football game with him. I didn’t know why my heart was beating so fast, why I could feel the fear creeping up inside me. Looking back on that experience, I get it in a way I couldn't at the time. Some years later, there was the man on the bus when I was heading to the mall. There was the man on the bike when I was going to work, the man standing outside my workplace who wouldn’t leave until I gave him my number, the man who followed me and my friends around another mall, the man who I had to tell I was engaged so he would leave me alone, the man who parked his car in front of me when I was going home so I had to turn around and walk the other way – thank god I had family members living nearby.
But that isn't all. I was nine years old when my cousin first assaulted me. It continued until I was 11 years old.
“Just tell the police it wasn’t as serious as you made it out to be,” my uncle said as we sat in the living room that night after the police and social worker had left. “Say that it was a joke or something. If this gets out, it will ruin your family’s izzat.” He was silently telling me that the family’s reputation, the honour, was more important than any form of justice for me.
According to a YouGov study of more one thousand women, 96% of them never reported the incidents, with 45% saying that it wouldn’t have changed anything. The thing is, a year before I had gone to the police, I told my abuser’s sister (my cousin) about what he’d been doing to me.,. I remember I had a school assembly that day about bullying and my head of year told us, as we sat cross-legged on the mahogany flooring, that we shouldn’t suffer in silence. That day after school, I told her that her brother had been touching me in places he shouldn’t. Everything from fear to anxiousness to regret raced through me, a storm of raging emotions, warring to see which was stronger, which one would win out in the end.
She told me that she believed me.
She called her brother and yelled at him, told him to stay away from me and asked how he could do that. A year later though, I was free-falling into a pit of depression – I had a meeting with the school Child Protection Officer, a prerequisite in order to get referred to the school counsellor, and I found myself spilling apart at the seams. I told her everything. I told her how it started when I was nine years old, a few days or so after Eid. “Give me an Eid hug,” he’d told me. I remember laughing saying Eid was over. “A late Eid hug, then.” I did, I gave him a hug, and then I felt his hands on my bum. I felt uncomfortable, a weird feeling churning in the pit of my stomach but I didn’t know why.
I told her how the last time was the worst. “I think he would’ve raped me,” I said, kicking my feet back and forth on the floor. “But bhabi – his brother’s wife – was coming upstairs and he stopped what he was doing. He made me promise not to tell anyone.”
A few weeks later, the police and social services, and an interpreter, dressed in plain clothes so as not to draw suspicion, were knocking on my front door with me in tow. Everyone congregated in the living room, my parents on one side of the sofa, the interpreter on the other, the social worker and two police officers on the chairs. I stood by the door, watching as the main detective on the case spoke. The interpreter repeated everything in Bangla to my parents.
My dad turned to me and asked if it was true. I felt the clawing hand of fear immobilise me, a sob escaping and I ran from the living room and into my bedroom. I used a sharp pin to turn the emotional pain, the inescapable sadness and anger, into something physical.
That night, my uncle came over and my parents told him what happened. He wanted to know where I’d been touched. I couldn’t speak about it without feeling shame ripping me apart, so I wrote everything down on a piece of paper, bile rising to my throat as I remembered. Then he said, “You should’ve told us and not the police. This will destroy your dad’s izzat. People will talk.”
I’m damaged goods. I’ll be seen as impure. No man will want to marry me, and no parents will want me to marry their son because I’ve already been touched.
His reaction – my parents’ reaction – instilled a deep-seated belief that I’m not good enough to be put first, that my wellbeing comes second, or maybe it’s not even on the list. There were more discussions, even with my abuser, in the kitchen of his mum’s house, leading to him coming upstairs to apologise to me. “I don’t know what I was doing,” he’d said. “I think the devil was controlling me.”
Him and his wife told the police, when questioned, that I made everything up because I was jealous of his lack of attention since he had kids. I held a scream I my throat. After my parents, my uncle and his mum all told me to close the case, to tell the police it was never as serious as I said, I listened to my family and told the police I didn't want to take it further.
My silence was a currency for cultural acceptance, to keep the family’s name from being dragged through mud. This still fills me with rage and hurt, not even because of what he did to me, but the reaction from all the people who were meant to protect me. My uncle told me that my abuser – my cousin – would be shunned from all family functions and weddings. Turns out that was a lie, because he’d been invited to all the weddings.
He even had the audacity to visit my dad in hospital last year and ask him to pray for him. Seeing him in the waiting room made me furious – the kind of anger that bubbles and simmers beneath the surface but has to be reigned in otherwise it will destroy everything in its path. I asked my mum, as calmly as I could, what he was doing there. She told me not to make a scene and that I had no right to say he couldn’t visit. “It’s not the Muslim thing to do.”
Yet Islam puts victims of abuse first. The Muslim thing to do, I wanted to shout, would be to let me get justice, to put my safety first. To put all the other women in our family who have been abused by other men in our family, first. Yet the South Asian culture continues to blame women and girls for what they have endured, a tradition clung onto by our parents despite every plea. The very foundation of my culture is built on izzat allowing men to exert violent and abusive behaviours, yet silencing women due to sharam [shame]. I was a child, told to remain quiet for the sake of the reputation and so that I could still deemed marriage-material. The cultural norms and values are rooted in traditions centuries old, one that trivialises rape and abuse, making every comment, every dismissal, feel like a personal attack on my own experiences.
A year ago, I brought all of this up to my uncle, unable to keep the tears from seeping into my words, saying that they should’ve all done more to protect me and my other cousins this happened to. I had to cover my mouth to keep from sobbing, my boyfriend holding me as I took in deep breaths. I still feel rage at the reaction of my uncle, my parents, my aunt. Nobody bothered to ask me if I was okay or tell me that nobody would hurt me again. I still see that person at family events; hear his name creep up in conversations.
The people who enforce this kind of misogynistic rape culture are the very people who pretend it never happened in the first place. They cover it up to prevent it from tarnishing the family’s reputation, so nobody knows that they vilify, blame and shame the victims and absolve, harbour and protect the perpetrators.
The police had told me I had until I was 21 to reopen the case. Every year since I was 12, I wanted to. I never did, because really what would happen? There was no evidence and I would be questioned for closing the case in the first place.
Seeing what happened to Sarah Everard, going home from her mate’s house, made me so angry. Seeing the men say “well she shouldn’t have been alone at night” made me so angry, because it is something I see all the time. Women are constantly blamed, constantly put under the microscope whenever something happens to us.
I am tired of acting like it doesn’t affect me. I am tired of being scared of the men in my life; I am tired of being scared of every man when leaving my home. I am tired of my culture silencing women, all in the name of izzat.
It is teaching every other young girl that they will never be protected, they will never matter. We are constantly have the same conversations around our safety and wellbeing, about the lengths we go to for our own protection – holding keys between our knuckles, sharing our location with everyone we know. But nothing is changing. We are still getting abused, raped, assaulted, and harassed. We are still getting blamed. I shouldn’t have had to share my location when I first met my boyfriend – that shouldn’t be a part of every woman’s natural instinct, just in case.
We shouldn’t be feeling scared when we see a man looking at us in public, we shouldn’t be terrified and thinking the worst when our mates forget to text us when they get home. Being a woman in this world shouldn’t mean fearing for our safety every day.