CC ISSUE: MAR 2012 Last updated: Mar 8, 2012
Was it abuse?
As part of a two-part series, Nadia Mohajir narrates a message of what domestic violence looks like.
Just having returned from an intense karate class, Rania* reflected on her anger, and how tired she felt upon the release of her anger.
“I just hate him,” she thought. “I really just hate him.”
She sighed, and her gaze fell upon on the mug he gave her that she had continued to use daily for more than a decade. “But part of me loves him, too. Is that wrong?”
Rania was 13 when it first started. He was her 36-year-old, married-with-children uncle. The relationship began very slowly, with just a few inappropriate comments here and there. Then, it was a hug. Later, it became a longer hug, in a more private space. Before Rania knew it, she was in an emotionally and physically overwhelming relationship with her uncle. Now relocated and removed from the relationship, she has had time to reflect on the 11-year, emotionally intense and physically intimate relationship, questioning continuously, “Was it abuse? Am I responsible because I let it happen?”
The unfortunate reality is that Rania’s struggle is not uncommon, nor is it properly addressed in the Muslim community. Moreover, young women who are not informed about their bodies or healthy relationships are ill-equipped to identify when they are being abused or have the resources to know where to go for help.
According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 7 percent of girls in grades 5-8 and 12 percent of girls in grades 9-12 report being sexually abused.
This number does not include the many more who do not report their abuse, or who are unequipped to determine that they are in fact being abused.
Ninety-three percent of victims know their attacker, with 34.5 percent of attackers being family members. Victims are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and four times more like to contemplate suicide. The Muslim community is not immune to these issues. They simply have not been exposed as often as they need to be.
I had the opportunity to speak for quite a while with Rania, who refers to herself as Neighborhood Muslimah. She contacted me a few months ago, having come across HEART Women and Girls’ website and wanting to raise awareness for her own blog (wasitabuse.blogspot.com) and her reflections of her own experiences. Her blog is her way of opening the world’s eyes to an urgent issue in the Muslim community: sexual abuse. Just a few minutes of reading her blog will take the reader into a relationship overwhelmed with subtle coercion and sexual manipulation.
Rania’s blog is the first step to raising awareness about the importance of open dialogue and sexual health education as a way to empower women and girls to be able to identify when they are being abused, and how to respond to such a situation.
As I spoke with Rania, she told me of how she was very young when the relationship with her uncle first became questionable. He was her mother’s sister’s husband, and both families were very close. He was her favorite uncle because he was so much fun, and would often spend her summer holidays in his home with his family. As their relationship progressed slowly but surely, she became dependent upon the attention and praise he showered upon her. They would engage in long conversations about so many issues and he would praise her for how mature and insightful she was.
“He allowed me to feel stronger than him, and elevated me in my own eyes,” she explained. “He made me feel that I was special and superior compared to everyone else. He would talk to me as if I was his wife, and would tell me how I was so strong and pious, I would be a leader for all Muslim women.”
Rania learned the tricks of maintaining a secret relationship, as all teenage girls and boys do. She lied excessively about where she was going, learned to sneak out of the house, and would use her own home to meet him when her parents were out of town. While they never fully had intercourse, their relationship consisted of extremely intense and physically intimate moments. Too many times, she would be overwhelmed with guilt, questioning this relationship in the eyes of God, but would quickly be comforted by him, as he explained to her that if God had a problem with it, He would have exposed them, but instead they were able to continue the relationship without getting caught. Never once, though, did the thought cross Rania’s mind that her uncle was taking advantage of a situation and behaving in an abusive manner.
She proudly told her friends about her “boyfriend.” They all had someone special they bragged about, so she felt obligated to do the same, changing his name, age, and even found a picture of another younger boy so that he became real to her and her friends.
“I had convinced myself I was in love with him,” she said. “Once in sex education class, the teacher asked if the victim of an abusive relationship can feel pleasure. When the class unanimously said, no, I was convinced I wasn’t in an abusive relationship because I liked being in his company, even if I was uncomfortable with being physically intimate. He didn’t beat me. Instead, he praised me and showered me with gifts. How is that abuse?”
Thus, for her entire adolescence, Rania lived a dual life, even creating a nickname for her uncle so that the duality of her uncle’s role – that of her doting uncle publicly, but of her significant other in her private life – would not be as obvious to her. Guilt, sadness, and seeking guidance through prayer became her companions, as she didn’t believe she had anyone to turn to for help.
“I couldn’t turn to family,” she said, “because we were all so close. And couldn’t turn to community, because not only was I in this inappropriate relationship, but I was a respected member of Muslim youth in my city, always being asked to give speeches and serving as a role model for other kids. People thought I was an angel,” she sadly told me. “How could I break that image and tell them that their angel was actually a devil in disguise?”
As Rania continued to tell me of her adolescence and her uncle’s subtle techniques to keep her committed in the relationship, I couldn’t help but think of all the various factors that allowed this situation to persist, and what we could have done as a community to prevent it. Was this in fact a case of abuse, despite Rania’s continuous consent?
“Was it Abuse?” was originally published by AltMuslimah.com. Look for “Was it Abuse? Part Two” in the next issue of the Chicago Crescent.