CC ISSUE: APR 2012 Last updated: Apr 5, 2012
Was it abbuse?
Sexual abuse is a reality that has been invading many young girls and boys in the Muslim community for centuries, yet remains unaddressed in many of our families and greater communities. Rania’s story of her 11-year relationship with her uncle (aunt’s husband) is of no exception, and unfortunately more common than anyone would be comfortable with.
Ending a manipulative relationship is not easy for anyone, let alone for a young woman who knew it to be as part of her normal routine since the age of 13.
In my conversation with Rania, she told me how she eventually wanted to end the relationship. She had decided to move, and had been traveling with her friend Lubna. She began telling Lubna of her significant other, speaking very highly and lovingly about the man she had left behind but also sadly looking back, telling Lubna how she and her beloved could not be together because her family would never accept their relationship. She believed that distance would really help her clear her mind, but it only made it worse. She missed him terribly, and reconnected with him through phone and email and continued their relationship a bit longer. She described their relationship thus: “Even though he was always in the driver’s seat in the relationship, he made me feel like the driver.”
Months later, after ending their relationship a final time, Rania met Lubna again, who asked about her significant other. Lubna was shocked to hear Rania speak of this man so negatively, with so much anger. Lubna asked what had changed, and Rania explained to her that the distance apart helped her clear her mind, and reflect on the experiences she had had for the past 11 years—experiences she had forgotten, similar to selective amnesia.
“I even forgot that he was my uncle,” she explained. “Every day, I still question whether this was abuse.”
She also explained that the love and affection she developed for him over time was what many psychologists refer to as a coping mechanism—similar to what victims in war-torn areas experience. “It’s what we do when we see no way out… when we have lost all hope.”
There are several troubling truths to Rania’s story. Anecdotal evidence suggests her struggle is not uncommon. Moreover, upon a simple literature and Internet search, one quickly realizes there are no culturally-appropriate resources for young Muslim women who are survivors of such sexual violence.
Rania felt she could not go anywhere for help. The occasions she thought her family had suspected remained uncomfortable silences, and she did not have the confidence in her family or community—she believed that if she did come forward, she would be the one blamed for the relationship.
During our talk, she explained to me, “If I felt I could have gone and told a member of my family that I am experiencing this relationship, and they would realize it wasn’t my fault and not reprimanded me for it (“maybe you shouldn’t have been so friendly, maybe you should wear hijab”), perhaps I would have said something. But my fear was if I opened my mouth, I would be the aggressor, the cause of fitna.”
She didn’t have open discourse with her mother about the challenges of being an adolescent, about feeling attraction toward boys and about what to do when one’s heart is controlling one’s actions. Rather, she had these discourses with her uncle, who filled that void for her when she needed it the most.
She didn’t have the confidence in herself to believe herself when she felt something was truly wrong. Rather, she turned to him for her confidence. She didn’t trust herself, and believed this was something she had to figure out on her own. She asked me, “How did I know no one would understand when I didn’t even try?”
Rania’s uncle saw a vulnerable girl and chose to take advantage of an opportunity. He relied heavily on emotional manipulation to coerce her into fulfilling his inappropriate desires.
Our community has a responsibility to our young girls. We have a responsibility to have faith in them, and to trust them enough that even if they come to us with a terrible nightmare of a situation, that they got into that mess not because of their own negligence. We have to try to find the context and reasoning behind why certain situations happen, and not to judge or reprimand them before.
As Rania told me, “The worst thing is to feel that you won’t be accepted if you speak up.”
We have a responsibility to protect our girls from men like Rania’s uncle, who saw an opportunity and chose to abuse it. We must have open and honest dialogue with them about sexual health and sexuality, no matter how difficult these conversations may be. There is no doubt that the Muslim community needs to develop a culturally-sensitive approach to sexual health education. If young women are not informed about their bodies and healthy relationships, they are not equipped to identify when they are being abused or have the resources to know where to go for help.
Moreover, we have an obligation to hold the men in our community accountable for their actions, and to be able to speak up against them, regardless of his position in society, and without becoming collateral damage in the process.
So, he never hit her. In fact, he treated her like a princess and elevated her in the eyes of everyone, including herself. But she was 13 and he was 36 when it first started. I ask you the same question Rania repeatedly asks herself in her blog: Was this abuse? If so, did we do enough to protect Rania, and all the girls who have the same story?