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Refusing to Stay Silent

Names have been changed.

I was on the couch watching Cinderella while my brother and cousins played outside. I had my favorite blue blanket wrapped around my petite frame. I was 5 years old.

I was home alone with my uncle who I wasn’t very close with. I have a lot of uncles, too many to count. Growing up, dozens of family members were often in my house.

When he came in, I moved over and patted a spot next to me so he could sit, and he did.

“Can I share your blanket with you?” he asked.

“Sure! You came at just the right time. Cinderella just got home from the ball and they are trying shoes on all the girls.”

After a few minutes, he tapped my shoulder and I looked up at him. “Would you want my heart to break into lots of pieces?” he asked me.

“No!” I answered quickly.

He laughed, deep and croaking. “OK then kid, will you tell me that I’m the bestest uncle in the whole wide world?”

I smiled up at him with the brightest smile I could muster. “You’re the bestest uncle in the whole wide world.”

He started clapping; he reminded me of a cartoon character. “Yayyyy!” he shouted. “OK, now say that I’m the most handsomest uncle in the whole wide world.”

I was laughing now because I was having fun with our little game. “You’re the most handsomest uncle in the whole wide world.”

“Now say that I’m the most handsomest man in the whole wide world.”

“No, I can’t do that,” I replied.

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Because my daddy is the most handsomest man in the whole wide world.”

Not a Game

Suddenly the playfulness in his eyes was replaced with anger. “Just f--king say it, you stupid brat,” he spat.

I grew quiet because it was the first time an adult said such a bad word to me.

“Don’t make me repeat myself!” he shouted.

“You’re the most handsomest man in the whole wide world,” I said quickly.

“Now say that I’m the best boyfriend in the whole wide world.” I did. “Now say that any woman would be lucky to have me.” I did. “Say that every woman who has ever rejected me is missing out on the best man in the entire world.” I did. “Say that I can f-ck better than Cynthia’s ex-boyfriend.” I hesitated, but no matter how much it pained me to use a curse word, I complied because I was scared.

“Kiss my cheek,” he demanded. I stood on my knees on the couch and kissed his cheek, praying none of my tears would fall onto his skin.

“Kiss my nose,” he whispered. And I closed my eyes and did it. This continued until I kissed his whole face, including his disgusting lips.

I sat back down. I couldn’t enjoy Cinderella’s wedding or the beautiful songs. Then I felt his rough hands run up and down my bare legs. They inched up my thighs. I closed my eyes when they got close to my crotch. There was no escaping. He had me trapped.

Telling My Parents

My childhood is a blur of uncles and my father’s older male friends taking advantage of me. But I didn’t talk to my parents about it until I was around 8. They emphasized the importance of trusting and respecting your elders, and I thought that telling them would be violating that sacred law.

I chose to share an experience that wasn’t as severe as that uncle molesting me. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable talking to my parents or for them to accuse me of making it up.

I walked into their bedroom and told them my dad’s friend kissed me on the lips in the backyard a few days earlier.

My father cleared his throat. “Listen … sometimes my friend can be a bit … too open with people,” he said carefully. “He acts that way with his nieces so I guess he treated you the same way. Don’t worry though. I’ll talk to him and tell him not to do it again, OK?”

My mom said, “I want you to know that it’s OK to feel anger and sadness, but I also want you to know that you’ll get through this. You’re strong; stuff like this can’t break you.” I was surprised by how serious she was. Later, it occurred to me that maybe she was talking from experience. However, I have not yet worked up the nerve to ask her.

image by YC-Art Dept

My parents’ words comforted me, but I also wished they would have marched to that man’s house and slapped him the same way I wanted to slap his hand away. After talking to them, I wanted to cry but I didn’t know why.

But now I realize that my parents were avoiding the fact that this was sexual abuse. I didn’t even know what sexual abuse and molestation meant yet, but I still knew what these men did to me was wrong. Why didn’t they?

When I turned 10, I realized no one was going to fight for me so I began to fight for myself. For example, when I was 12, I was at my aunt’s house at a large family gathering when an uncle began running his hands up and down my thighs under the table. I jumped up and said, “Stop touching me, that’s gross!” He stopped, although no one seemed surprised or angry.

Over the years, I’ve thought about other girls who may have had similar things done to them. Are they told to stay quiet? Do their parents confront the men? Do they look like me? Are they angry? Sad?

Not the Only One

About a year later, during Ramadan, many of these questions were answered one night in our mosque. There was a room upstairs that the girls sat in after they completed prayer. There were about 25 of us, girls of all ages. At first, it was awkward because no one said much; we hardly knew each other.

Then a young girl named Tasnia, who looked about 6, buried her head into her teenage sister Tithy’s chest. She cried for a few minutes. “I want to go home,” she whined.

“Why?” I asked her.

“If I tell you guys this, you can’t tell anyone.” We all nodded our heads.

“I was home and going to the bathroom a few days ago when a big hairy man that I didn’t know came in and wouldn’t leave when I told him to. I tried to scream but he covered my mouth and then started touching me when I didn’t have my pants on. I took so many showers because he made me feel dirty but I still don’t feel clean,” she said quickly, almost as if she was reciting a presentation for school that she just wanted to get over with.

Tithy looked up at all of us. I could tell she was hoping others might be willing to share their stories.

I wasn’t ready but other girls were. I listened to their stories of sexual abuse far into the night. For the most part, parents were told but didn’t do much. It made me realize that I hate adults who ignore and hide abusive acts even more than I hate the adults who commit them. Although I don’t like to admit it, I think my parents’ response to my sexual assault was inadequate; they failed to protect me.

The Party

When I was 16, I convinced an older friend to take me to a party at her college. I wore a low-cut black crop top and a tight black mini skirt. I love dressing up; I love the feeling of walking into a room and knowing that there are people staring, amazed.

As soon as we arrived, my friend went upstairs with her boyfriend. I was having fun until I saw my 31-year-old cousin. “Why is he at a college party?” I thought. His eyes met mine. I panicked because I didn’t want him telling my parents. They thought I was at the library studying.

My heart raced. I went into the kitchen and drank a shot of tequila before heading back into the living room. I saw an attractive boy sitting on a ratty old couch and I gave him a lap dance. “Ooooos” and “aaaaaaaas” filled the room and I felt exhilarated. Afterward, I danced with strangers. I started grinding on a boy who’d grabbed my hips from behind.

The boy started kissing my neck and I laughed because I was too tipsy to yell at him for his bad manners. When I turned around, my cousin stared back at me with reddened eyes and a lopsided grin.

I ran up the stairs banging on all the doors trying to find my friend. But my cousin was right behind me and slammed me against a wall. He grabbed my legs and wrapped them around his waist.

“Get the f-ck off me!” I shouted.

“Hey now, that’s not very polite,” he responded.

“What the f-ck is the matter with you?” I demanded.

He laughed. “Oh little cuz, is that anyway to talk to your elder?”

He ran his fingers over my lips. I felt his hands cup my breasts underneath my shirt and I froze. I felt like I was 5 years old again; I felt the rough hands touching me under my favorite blanket.

I felt him nibbling at my ear. In that moment, I realized that my self-protection was more important than my parents being angry at me. I elbowed my cousin in the nuts. He groaned and momentarily released me. I found my friend and ran with her to the car.

Strong and Victorious

I caught my breath and leaned back into the seat. Although I was afraid to go home, I felt strong and victorious for standing up for myself.

When I got home, everyone was asleep. I ran to my room and crashed.

I don’t think my cousin spoke to my parents about the party because they never asked me about it. That’s partly a relief, but if they had, it would have forced me to have the conversation about what’s been happening to me. I haven’t had the courage.

I wish I could talk to a therapist, but in Middle Eastern culture therapy is frowned upon. I doubt my parents would allow it. But I do speak to my older friend who has been through similar experiences. At this point, it’s easier for me to write about those memories than talk about them.

Although I’m not sure how yet, I want to create positive change in my Middle Eastern community by raising awareness about how common sexual abuse is, and prevent it from happening to other girls. For now, I’m grateful to myself that I had enough courage to take the first step, which is refusing to stay silent by writing this story.

Need someone to talk to? Safe Horizons offers free counseling for victims of sexual abuse. Call their counseling center at 347-328-8110 or go to:

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