Breaking My Silence
By Asma Nizami
In the fall of 2016, I broke my silence as a survivor of sexual violence. Nearly everyone I knew was shocked. I felt free. That was, until community members began calling my parents to tell them about my unwelcome declaration. It was taboo. Nobody wanted to talk about sexual violence. What kind of nice, God-fearing girl would ever talk about *gasp* SEX? (Shhh, you can’t say that out loud, Asma!) The truth is, when I broke my silence, several young women came to me and shared their stories of being assaulted, of being shunned and shamed by the communities they loved, and of watching their perpetrators go on to live with no consequences. I heard their stories and a fire began to roar deep in my belly. I didn’t care whether our community wasn’t ready to look itself in the mirror. I was ready. We were ready. We had waited too long. So I offered myself and my story up as sacrifice — the fight was beginning.
When I was young, talking about sex (or X-E-S, as I called it) was terrifying. It still is. The first time I really thought about it was in the first grade. A girl in my class told me that our parents have to have sex to make babies. I was appalled. “Muslims don’t do that!” I yelled at her before running away, my face red with embarrassment and anger. How dare she think Muslims did terrible things like have sex? What a fool. I showed her, all right! Nope. I was another super sheltered Brown Muslim kid whose parents refused to talk about the sexy elephant in the room. This was normal. Our parents so desperately wanted to save us from the hyper-sexualized society we were growing up in that they kept us blissfully ignorant (Mama, Daddy, if you’re reading this — I still love you <3). As the years went on, my parents kept me from going to sex ed classes, ignored my purposely infrequent questions about my body, and encouraged me to spend more time with my friends and sisters if I had any awkward questions. My older sisters made it clear that any and all questions were to be fielded to them, and that my parents were to be left out of any sex-related talk. I followed these new rules and made them promise that none of my questions would be brought back to my parents. They listened, for the most part...
I never felt beautiful as a young adult. I was skinny and awkward. Too hairy and too brown. My sisters were tall, skinny but curvy, and were prettier than I was, as people always seemed to remind me. I never really received any attention — wanted or unwanted — from the boys I knew. So, by the time I was 11, I was just used to being weird looking. Sometimes I wished boys looked at me the way they looked at my sister, or offered to pay for my food or gas the way they did for her out of admiration, but that didn’t happen. Not until an elderly family friend began to ask me for a hug each time I would see him. I didn’t realize until I was a few years older that he only seemed to ask me to hug him when there was nobody else around. He would tell me I was pretty. His favorite kid. It always made me a little bit uncomfortable, but I thought he was simply being nice. Maybe he could tell that I hated myself. I wasn’t sure. Regardless, I never mentioned this to my parents or my sisters. One day, after class at my local Sunday school, he hugged me again, but this time much tighter than usual, to the point that it hurt. He held my arms in place, gluing me to the spot. And then he kissed me. I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. What if his wife saw? What if people thought I wanted him (a 60-year-old man) to kiss me? When he let go of me, I ran away crying. I felt dirty. I washed my mouth vigorously with water, trying to rid myself of the feeling that my mouth was no longer mine.
I didn’t tell anyone for a whole year, at which point I confided in my sister. She went on to tell my other sister...who told my mom. I was horrified. I didn’t want my parents to know. He was their friend. I didn’t want to ruin their relationship. When my mother approached me and asked me what had happened, she didn’t cry. She was serious. Stern, even. She told me I never had to see him again. That she would protect me from him. And although I was grateful, the thought of her knowing made me feel somehow responsible for any pain she felt. This was the first conversation during which she and I had actually talked about my body, and I found myself wishing I had been silent about it all.
As I’ve grown older, and further away from the young girl who was afraid to break her silence, I have become somewhat fearless...except for when it comes to my parents — I mean, who isn’t forever afraid of disappointing their parents? Still, I have found myself holding back. I’ve broken my silence publicly about being assaulted again at age 20, and know it was the right decision. And each time I tell my story, I chip away at the shame that I once thought was normal. I know now that by telling my story, I allow other survivors to do the same. I realized this fully in 2015, when I told my story to a group of high school students. After I shared with them how being assaulted and beginning to see myself as a survivor brought me to activism, three of the young hijabi women in the class stayed after to speak with me. Two were in tears. One asked if she could hug me, and said, “Asma, me too.” They each disclosed that they had been assaulted, either as young adults or as children, and told me that they had been holding on to their shame for as long as they could remember. They felt that they had done something wrong, and that their bodies were to blame. That by hearing me tell my story unapologetically made them feel brave.
I go back to this moment a lot, especially when aunties in my community tell me I will “never get married” if I continue to talk about sexual violence, and talk about my body like it’s my own. Remembering that I’m creating a movement of radical healing for women like myself is usually all that gets me through the day.
When we refuse to talk to our children about their bodies, we are telling them that their bodies are not their own to love and celebrate and nurture. When we tell our children not to ask questions about sex and intimacy, we are telling them that intimacy is scandalous, dishonorable and unsafe. When we tell our children to stay silent about their trauma, we are telling them that their trauma is a shameful fault of their own. And when we tell our children to stay silent about people who violate their bodies and boundaries, we are telling them that their consent does not matter.
Today, I am blessed to be the aunt to 7 funny, weird, and pretty darn cute nieces and nephews. I love them fiercely, just as my Amma, the woman who raised me, taught me. When I think about the world that I want them to grow up in, I think of consent, and bodies that they love and know are theirs, theirs, theirs. I want them to know that people used to go to our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) and asked him about intimacy and consent. I want them to know that he lovingly answered these questions about bodies, sex, and intimacy in the masjid — the holiest of places; a house of Allah. Because it seems many of us have forgotten our legacy in Islam. Our Prophet (peace be upon him) was the most beloved human to walk this earth. If he (peace be upon him) talked about these issues, who are we to say that it’s shameful to teach our children and our communities about them? I want a world in which we are teaching our children that it’s their right in Islam to ask questions about sexual violence, consent, and intimacy. And I want a community of parents and leaders that understand it’s their right to answer with radical love, just like my Prophet (peace be upon him) did.