Denying Children Sexual Education is Risky

It appears the sexual education curriculum controversy refuses to die. On the first day of school nearly 700 hundred children were kept out of Thorncliffe Park Public School (almost half their population) and their parents have vowed to keep their children out of school until the new sex-ed curriculum is changed. However, I urge these parents to instead change their minds. Although I know that the parents who are protesting are not only Muslims and not only South Asian, I am personally invested in the health of these particular communities. As a Muslim, South Asian woman who has researched sexual health of Muslims, and who went through the Canadian school system, I strongly believe that these parents need to support this curriculum which will be a benefit to the health of our communities. The research on this matter just does not support their outrage.

From my research it appears that, when it comes to sex, young Muslims are no different than any other young people. The majority of young Muslim adults in my study who reported having had sex, reported doing so before marriage. Half of those who had not had sex before marriage had considered it. I know this conflicts with what many parents expect, believe, or teach their children. Many take an abstinence-only approach, expecting that their children will only engage in sexual activity once married. But that is not the reality for many young Muslims. The idea that this curriculum is not age-appropriate does not hold when we now know young Muslims need sexual education well before marriage.

Additionally, it appears that Muslim parents are not talking to their children about sexual issues. The vast majority of participants in my research reported that parents were their least likely source of information on sex. This isn’t unlike most other parents but it is reason enough to believe that if these children are not receiving this education at school, they are not going to be receiving it at home either. And that is putting these children at risk.

Research demonstrates, again and again, the benefits of comprehensive sexual education. Along with lower chances of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies, sexual education also has been linked with young people delaying sexual activity – something I would assume many religious parents prefer. Research also shows that lack of accurate sexual education can result in anxiety about sex which can negatively impact sexual relationships. However, providing comprehensive sexual education can increase confidence and allow young people to make informed, healthy decisions.

On offer is a progressive curriculum that includes a focus on relationships (not just sex), inclusivity, and, very importantly, consent. When I was going through school in the Maritimes these topics were never included in sex-ed, but they were the ones my peers and I most wanted, and needed, to learn. Unfortunately, I saw first-hand the detrimental impact that lack of education had on some people around me. Denying children access to education on these essential life skills can be of no benefit to their health.

It is clear to me that the parents who are protesting truly care about their children. I believe they are genuinely fearful of the impacts this education may have. But I want to assure them that all the evidence suggests their children will be much better off, and healthier, being educated about sexual health, relationships, inclusivity, and consent. Education is a tool that helps us navigate the world. Just as children need to learn the basics of math, science, literature, and history to understand their world, they need to learn the basics of their sexual health to understand themselves, their bodies, their relationships with others, and their boundaries. We cannot place less importance on the health of our children than we do on math, science, and literature. All youth need to be armed with sexual education so that they are able to make healthy sexual decisions, which they will most certainly be confronted with throughout their entire lives.

When Fasting Is Not For God

Reposted from Muslimah Media Watch.

The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

Trigger warning: This post contains discussions of body image and disordered eating.

The first Ramadan that I fasted, I was struck by how easy I found it.

This was not exactly a good thing.  I had struggled with control issues around food, and with my perception of my body, since I was a pre-teen, long before I was Muslim.  When I began fasting, in my early twenties, it quickly became clear to me that the satisfaction that I got from being able to suppress my appetite all day was not only – maybe not even primarily – out of a sense of connection to the Divine.  In fact, for the first couple Ramadans, I was too good at fasting; even once the sun set, it was hard to let go of that sense of satisfaction at controlling myself through not eating.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at finding a balance between enjoying the fast while allowing myself to eat when the sun is down.  This year feels different.  In the past six months, for a mix of reasons, long-buried body issues have surfaced, and have brought with them some of the most difficult struggles with eating that I’ve ever had in my life.  Ramadan in this context is, to be honest, a scary prospect.

Although things have been slightly better over the last two months or so than they were before that, I am scared that spending a month fasting is going to reinforce some of the worst eating (or not-eating) habits that I’ve developed lately.  I’m worried about how good it will feel to know that I can make it through the fasting day, 17 hours at a time, without eating or drinking. I’m worried that I won’t be able to eat enough at suhoor or iftar, which have been emotionally stressful since this Ramadan began.

I’m also becoming increasingly concerned about the spiritual side of the month. Over the past few months, I’ve often felt as if I’m living an upside-down life, where I hunger not to feed my body but to deprive it, where I feel more satisfied in abstaining from food than in consuming it. Many days, eating very little is the norm for me.  The usual reversal of daily routines that Ramadan brings about is just not the same this time around.

I worry about my current understanding of how I am controlling what I eat. I’m deeply aware that the anxieties around my body, the craving for control through limiting what I eat, and the guilt and stress of eating, lead me away from God. Over the past few months, before Ramadan began, abstaining from food has reinforced thought patterns about how I don’t deserve to eat, because I, or my body, am not “good enough.” I just don’t know if I have it in me to be able to take part in a religious practice that looks so similar to these patterns that damage my spirituality, and get benefit out of the practice instead. I don’t know if I can trust myself to fast “for the sake of God” when I have been effectively fasting for the sake of my own guilt and insecurities so much already this year. I can say the intention out loud, but it feels hollow: would my days really look much different if I weren’t “fasting for God’s sake”? And if not, then what does my intention here really mean? If it’s something I would more or less be doing anyway, then how can I say it’s for anything related to God?

Right now, when I limit or control my eating habits, this brings me away from the idea of God as Sustainer and Provider, who has blessed me with nourishment and sustenance. When I am wary of eating because of my perception of my body, it brings me away from the idea of God as Creator and Shaper, who has created each human in the best of forms. When I feel guilty about eating because I feel like my body is not yet good enough, I am turning away from the concept of God as the One who forgives us even when we don’t think we deserve it, and the only One who is truly perfect.

In other words, fasting – controlling what we eat and when, and emphasising abstaining from food for most of the day – has an uncomfortable number of similarities with practices that are currently hurting me spiritually.

It seems I’m not alone in this, and it’s probably not a surprise that religious practices involving fasting can be widely triggering for those with tendencies towards disordered eating, whether in Muslim or non-Muslim contexts.  There is so much to be gained from a month like Ramadan, but I wish it was easier to talk about some of the risks that fasting can bring.

In many ways, a bigger leap of faith for me this year would be to pledge to eat regularly for an entire month: to accept the blessings of food gifted to me by my Sustainer, to honour its role in nourishing my body, whatever it looks like, and to give myself permission to let go of whatever ideals of perfection and control I have been imposing upon myself.

That sounds good in theory, and I think that’s my test this year.  I also know that it might be beyond what I am capable of achieving within only a month.

But as I begin this Ramadan, I am trying to gently remind myself that it is not only a month of fasting.  It is also a month where the food that we do eat can have immense blessing.  Instead of focusing on suppressing my desires, I hope that this Ramadan can move me towards learning to eat with gratitude and awareness.

Ramadan Mubarak

This is one day late (sorry!) but RAMADAN MUBARAK everyone!

May this Ramadan bring lots of blessings, happiness, health, and peace to everyone, fasting or not, practicing or not, insha’Allah.

Insha’Allah, this month I hope to engage in more self-care – physical, mental, and spiritual. And in the spirit of self-care I will be trying to post a few pieces on Ramadan, fasting, and mental health. This month is not the happiest for everyone and not easy for everyone. It can be challenging, not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Although we often hear about the physical challenges associated with Ramadan, our community rarely talks about the other challenges. It almost seems taboo. But I hope to explore these issues this month, insha’Allah.

ramadanmemes10

Modesty Discourse, Women, and Bodily Entitlement

Dear fellow Muslims,

I am TIRED. Tired, tired, tired. Actually, sick and tired, of the modesty discourse within our Muslim communities. Like, very effing tired of it. It is dehumanizing, it is objectifying, and it is dangerous for women. And I need to rant.

But before I move on, I want to clarify two points.

First, that I am speaking of modesty discourses, or the messages surrounding modesty that are commonly promoted and believed in Muslim communities, and not women’s individuals choices to dress modestly. Women choose to dress modestly for a variety of reasons, including spiritual, personal, etc. This is not about them.

Second, the arguments I raise here are not in the least new. In fact, what I speak of is what many feminists in Canada, the US, etc. speak about today. None of this is specific to the Muslim community. All I am saying is that the misogyny and patriarchal oppression we see in mainstream Canadian and other Western societies is the same we see in Muslim communities, just expressed in different ways. Body policing, body shaming, and control of women’s bodies are universal phenomenon, as is the assumption that women are responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and behaviours. (Skim through any feminist blog and you will read countless examples.) And why wouldn’t Muslims be the same as others. We ALL live in patriarchal societies. All societies (with the exception of some small tribal societies here and there) oppress and objectify women. So non-Muslims need not get all high and mighty about this.

Alright, now on to my rant.

What is modesty for Muslims? Who defines it? Why is it valued so much?

All Muslim women know how MASSIVE an emphasis is placed on Muslim women’s clothing within Muslim communities. There have been khutbahs (delivered by men) about it, books written (by men) about it, pamphlets distributed (by men) on the topic, lectures delivered (by men…and parents) to women on how important it is for a Muslim woman to cover herself, hide her feminine curves. Nay, how it is her ISLAMIC DUTY to cover her body.

And it’s not only to cover our bodies, but lower our voices, diminish our perfumes, wear soundless (or quiet) jewellery, etc. In other words, we must do anything we can to make sure men do not notice us and are not turned on by us. Because, you know, men get erections at the site of a woman’s stray hair, from a whiff of a woman’s perfume, or from the clanking of a woman’s bangles. Must be hard to live like that…..poor things (sorry for the blunt words but that’s basically what we’re talking about, no?).

But who decided THIS was modesty? There is no doubt that modesty is an important aspect of Islam. But as Muslims we are supposed to be modest in all aspects of our lives, not just our clothes. We are not supposed to show off our money, our knowledge, our abilities, etc. We are always supposed to be humble and treat everyone equally. That is why we value modesty, in general – it is meant to create egalitarianism. It is meant to ensure that we are not making others feel inferior to us in any way.

Yet, the general modesty discourse in Muslim communities is almost exclusively in reference to women’s bodies and clothing. It is almost always about how much skin a woman shows and about enticing/distracting men. After all, when was the last time Muslim community leaders policed men wearing Movado watches, Gucci shoes, or Armani suits? When was the last time Muslim men were told not to show off their wealth by driving to Eid prayer in their BMWs and Mercedes? Or when was the last time an Uncle at the mosque went around telling all the doctors not to congregate together with their noses up in the air, or all the engineers to not talk down to the mechanics and restaurant servers? Those are surely very immodest acts,  acts that are sure to fuel inequality and make others feel inferior (unlike women showing some skin), yet men are NEVER policed for them.

We know that men have defined the modern incarnation of modesty. Men, interpreting Islamic texts, have defined everything for us, including what it means to be modest. Men who live in a patriarchal society have a vested interest in controlling and oppressing women. An agenda, if you will. The men who have interpreted the Islamic texts have all done so from a patriarchal perch. Their agenda (to make sure their power over women is not diminished) must be taken into account when we critically examine how they defined modesty for us.

And critically examine it we must because it is harmful to women.

The modern discourse of modesty means a woman covered from head to toe. It is rigidly defined and it is tied intimately to sexuality. A “moral” Muslim woman, we are told, will cover herself in a particular way. A “good” Muslim woman will not show her curves or her skin (most of it at least). Because an uncovered Muslim woman is too sexually enticing to men. (What about the menz???) At best she will distract him from his duties. At worst she will “make” him rape her. Therefore, those who are not covered (in very rigid ways) are to be reminded of their unIslamic behaviour (I’ve gotten a few of those lectures myself). They are to be enlightened of their Islamic duty (we’re told it’s to God, but I think it’s to men) to cover and how they are causing erections in men all over the place (sorry, again, but how else can I say it?). And if they continue to remain uncovered then they are choosing to be sexually immoral and purposely going against Islam. Therefore, they are not to be respected.

A few years ago when Pakistani actress, Veena Malik, posed nude-ish for Indian FHM magazine, many Pakistanis online were outraged (not all, just many). And not because she appeared to be catering to the objectifying (and exoticizing) male gaze (a criticism I can get behind). They blamed her (as many do with other Pakistani models and actresses who show some skin) for the moral downfall of Pakistan. Not the mass corruption in the government and judiciary, not the killing of Ahmadi Muslims, not the celebration of murderers, not the high levels of violence against women. No, women showing skin is the moral downfall of the country. It appeared that Veena Malik deserved less respect than the men who are literally destroying the country.

Veena-Malik

Veena Malik

We all know what happens when a woman is seen as unworthy of respect (which is pretty much the norm in any patriarchal society). She is seen as an object, dehumanized. The vast majority of women have experienced the resulting sexual harassment/abuse. Catcalling, whistling, lewd comments, touching on the subway, sexual harassment at work, etc. The list is very long. (I encourage readers to check out #firstharassed on Twitter. Countless stories of girls and women being sexually harassed and assaulted, but I give a trigger warning.) Regardless of modesty discourses, women’s bodies are seen as public property (because we’re things, not people) to which men are entitled – entitled to comment on, entitled to touch, entitled to violate. Patriarchy teaches us that. Add to that a religious modesty discourse and the stakes are raised higher. Women’s bodies now become a moral playground for men. A woman’s body is not only read as public property to which men are entitled, but also a religious statement for which men can criticize and judge her. They can justify their entitlement through self-righteous religious judgement.

“Hey, she’s not dressed “modestly”, which means she’s not religious, which means she’ll sleep with me, which means she’s slutty, which means I can make comments on her body and she’ll like it.”

What I’m saying is that the most common modesty discourse we see flowing through Muslim communities all around the world, allows men to religiously justify their policing and sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Even without religion patriarchy allows men this control. We don’t need men’s misogynistic interpretations of Islam entrenching that oppression further. Instead of using religion strengthen an oppressive discourse, we should use religion to fight it, resist the objectification of women, and eliminate men’s sense of entitlement to our bodies.

Muslim Women and Mental Health – Part 2

A few days ago I posted a conversation between Muslim women on the issue of Muslim women and mental health. If you haven’t had a chance to watch/listen to it please do.

After watching the conservation I had a few thoughts of my own, on the issue of Muslim women and mental health, that I wanted to share.

In the video a discussion on the issue of spirituality and mental health highlights how religious leaders, as well as many community members, assume mental health issues to be caused by lack of faith. The participants in the discussion very rightly noted that this would not apply to those with clinical depression or psycho-pathologies such as schizophrenia. Clearly, a lack of faith cannot be to blame, and doing so is extremely unhelpful.

However, mental health issues that are not the result of chemical conditions should also not be assumed to be due to lack of faith. Such an assumption is often (usually, even) wrong and can be isolating. And problematic.

My education is in social psychology, so I am very well aware of how central our surroundings and our environments, and everything within them, are as influences in our lives. There are so many experiences, big, small and everything in between, that can result in mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, anxiety, etc. It is humanly impossible for our psyches to not be impacted by what happens around us, to us. Impossible.The social world can be as powerful, controlling, unpredictable, and uncontrollable a force as any physiological or chemical function in our bodies.

That’s why it’s extremely problematic to tell someone who is depressed due to, say, losing their job,  or the ending of a relationship, or experiencing violence, that they lack faith. Faith can often help us deal, and indeed can be a wonderful coping tool for those for whom faith is important, but it rarely works alone. Forces outside us are powerful and we need tools to deal with those forces as well. Having faith needs to be complimented by strategies such as counselling, self-care, and, if needed, medication.

And this takes me to my next point. Mental health professionals.

The women in the video mentioned that there is a need for more Muslim mental health professionals. Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important to have a counsellor/therapist who understands our religious background without us having to explain it to them. It’s so helpful to speak with someone who understands the subtleties, the nuances, the understandings and worldviews that we, as Muslims, take for granted because they are so second-nature to us.

However, these counsellors/therapists also need to be non-judgmental and not necessarily approach each interaction with a Muslim client from a religious perspective. I suspect that trained counsellors/therapists would be better at this than, say, Imams who provide counselling. It can be difficult to open up and if we suspect that our Muslim counsellor/therapist may judge us for drinking, having sex, etc., than we won’t be able to get the help we need. As important as it is for our counsellors/therapists to be able to understand our background without us having to spend multiple sessions explaining cultural/religious details, it’s also important that those same understandings not be used to shame us or isolate us further.

The discussion on Muslim women and mental health is just beginning. I know it will continue and I’ll be following.

 

On Consent and Coercion

The following is written by someone who would like to remain anonymous. Thank you for sharing. 

The pressure to get married can be intense. I come from a culture in which early 20s is the ideal time to get married. I rarely felt any pressure to get married at that time, however, as I was focused on my education. But when I got to my late 20s, and went away to graduate school, that pressure formed over me like a dark, anxiety-producing cloud. A cloud that kept reminding me of how I was getting older, how I needed to settle down soon, of how marriage was an important part of being a Muslim.

Before this time in my life I had only dated on guy. Secretly. Despite that I knew nothing of how to date. I was never given any talks about how to deal with men in dating situations. I had been given plenty of talks about how I was not allowed to date, a rule I followed for most of my life. But I was never taught how to negotiate a romantic (or potentially romantic) encounter. I really wish I had.

In my anxious search for a husband I spent hours meeting Muslim men online. I was very naive. I had had few interactions with Muslim men outside my family and had these strange assumptions that all Muslim men would be respectful. Many were. But many weren’t. Many were right out vulgar or sleazy. But I guess that’s what online anonymity brings out in men, and not just Muslim men.

Most of my encounters with Muslim men remained online. But there were a few I met in person, some of whom I wished had never come into my life.

The first man I met in person was a bit older but a devout Muslim. Apparently he had spent his younger life sleeping around, drinking, etc. Basically doing all those things we’re told not to do. Therefore, at this point in his life he appeared to be making amends with God, in the way he thought he was supposed to (or perhaps told to). We had spent months talking through email and phone calls. He seemed quite nice. He even seemed quite nice in person, for the first little while. But then, it became clear, that he was a sexually coercive person.

“But I thought you said he was a devout Muslim”, you might say. In his head, he was. But his one weakness, he told me, was that he couldn’t control his sexual urges. He said he was working on it, and wanted my help. But over the course of the time we dated, he coerced me into having sex with him. Multiple times I made it clear I didn’t want to, but each time he got his way. I thought that if I didn’t he wouldn’t want to marry me. And because I was getting older I would lose my chance of getting married. I thought that if I didn’t let him have his way, I would be alone forever. But I didn’t realize how I was hurting myself with this way of thinking until years later. So much so that even after I broke things off with him I had a similar encounter with another Muslim man a year or so later, where my fear of not finding a husband allowed me to once again be coerced into a sexual act. Luckily, I only saw that man once.

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After these two encounters I felt immense shame. How could I have let myself get coerced like that? It seemed my desperation to get married, created by the pressures around me, allowed me to think that my acquiescence would nab me a husband. At that time I wasn’t thinking that I wouldn’t want such a man as my husband. I just needed to get married.

I am happily married now to a wonderful Muslim man. And in my search for a husband I did meet other good Muslim men. But I so, so, so wish I had been taught about issues of sexual coercion and consent when I was younger.  I so wish I had been warned of the men, including Muslim men (because we’re warned lots about non-Muslim men), who would try to sweet talk me into getting their way. I wish someone had warned me of the men, once again including Muslim men, who would exploit my insecurities to get their way.

Today, I refuse to feel the shame and guilt I used to feel. I am very comfortable placing the blame on those men who knew exactly what they were doing and exactly how much they were hurting me, and most likely other women as well. I feel anger toward them, but am perfectly comfortable with that anger because I know it is justified. They deserve my hate and my anger.

It should go without saying but sex should always be consensual. In my mind, that’s more important than who we have sex with. Our communities need to begin having conversations around consent and coercion and stop spending so much energy on who we have sex with. I really wish I had learned more about consent and coercion when I was younger.

My Eighth Summer

This conversation is too important not to have so I’m sharing this brave post. For too long such issues have been brushed under the rug in our communities but we need to talk about it. Thank you to the brilliant and brave author.

Cross-posted from Muslim Sistah.

(Note: Trigger warning)

Once upon a time, we were all children. I’m sure that for the most part, we look back to our childhoods with great fondness. I too was once eight years old. There are many times when I re-experience a set of events that happened overseas during the summer of my eighth year. I am not fond of these memories but couldn’t make sense of why until a year and a half ago.

I knew before this point that the memories were definitely not positive. I have very strong emotions tied to what I can recall of what happened to me. My body becomes very tense and I want to curl up into a ball and protect myself – to create a cocoon or layer of armour around me. Stress and anxiety levels start to rise, and I become incredibly agitated.
And when I’m asked to keep a family member in my prayers, who died a year after giving me these memories, I flinch and can feel my jaw tighten as a result of hearing his name. There used to be a picture of him in my parent’s house and to this day, I still cannot look at it. I feel angry and disgusted at these reminders of him. I was nine years old when I learned that he had passed away and rather than feel upset, I felt relieved because I knew he could no longer hurt me.
Yet I didn’t know why until recently.
It was only when I started to work in the area of child sexual abuse education that things started to click. Even then, it took me a while to reconcile what I was learning with my own experiences. I was well aware that so much of what I had been experiencing up until that point – the emotions, tension, stress, strong selective memories around an event that I would label as “traumatic”, and feeling triggered – finally made sense. But I continued to struggle with what had happened to me and was terrified to label it as sexual abuse.
But it was.
Upon coming to this realization, I sat down with my now ex-husband and attempted to tell him what had happened to me. I had to tell him. He was my husband and he had to know what I was going through – I needed his support and needed him to be there for me. There were times in our marriage when he would trigger me and as much as I tried to stop this from happening, my brain wouldn’t let me. The only way this would stop is if we worked together to figure out ways in which I could control or calm down the triggering, with the help of a counsellor I had started to see.
But there wasn’t any support or understanding from his end. The first words out of his mouth, somewhat frustratingly, were “but you were eight years old, can’t you get over it?”
In my desperation for him to understand how trauma impacts the brain and body, I tried to explain why I was dealing with this, in between bouts of tears at his lack of compassion. I had expected him to act as my protector, to empathize with me, and to say that he would do whatever it would take for us to get through this. I expected him to feel anger at the man who had exerted this control and trauma on an eight-year old girl. That this trauma I hadn’t chosen to be inflicted upon me wasn’t my own battle to fight. But in his eyes, it was. And he didn’t understand why it had taken me so long to “tell him” this news.
That he wished he had known about this before he had married me.
While my ex-husband and I faced many issues that eventually led to our divorce, it was difficult not to blame myself and my trauma as being the “final nail in the coffin.” I carried a lot of guilt for our divorce, blaming myself for us having to go down this path. I was already carrying the burden of financially supporting us, in addition to the demands of work, family, household management, etc…and now this? Our second year of marriage, before we separated, was the year that I had the most difficulty dealing with the understanding of what my trauma was. It didn’t at all help that I was running child sexual abuse education sessions, which essentially re-triggered my own experiences multiple times during the week. I was mentally exhausted at the range of emotions I would feel and the number of breakdowns I’d have at home after work. My ex-husband was not around that much, so he didn’t see this happening. I didn’t have any support – I disclosed my sexual abuse to a couple of close friends (not my family), but I knew that I needed professional help. I eventually reached out for help and started to see a counsellor last Ramadan. I’ve heard many people wonder why those who have been sexually abused sometimes “take so long” to disclose and understand what had happened to them. While I find this thought insensitive, I would hope that it stems from ignorance around sexual abuse. Speaking generally, people need to understand that there are many different forms of sexual abuse. It’s not solely about rape, which is what people’s minds tend to go to when they hear “sexual abuse.” Most children who are sexually abused will not know it’s sexual abuse until they are educated about it, and this may depend on what they remember, the duration of the abuse, and what else was happening in their life around the same time. And given that 85% of those who sexually abuse children are someone the child knows, this adds to the confusion already surrounding the situation. He/she wouldn’t hurt me, I’m family and they love me.  This holds true in the schools I run programming in and explains the spike in disclosures we receive from children after our educational sessions. Also, as I’ve experienced myself, the brain has an amazing capacity to act in a way that facilitates the survival of the individual, and this can be done by blocking access to specific memories around events that cause distress. I only remember certain things around what happened to me that summer and nothing else, and my counsellor has told me that I may never fully remember what happened, which I am completely fine with. I don’t know how many more times I was sexually abused that summer, but my mom telling me that my uncle enjoyed spending time with me makes me sick to my stomach. My brain has memories but so does my body – hence the automatic kicking in of tension, anger, clenched fists, feelings of stress, tight jaw muscles, etc. I’ve tried using a cognitive approach to prevent this from happening, but with minimal results. I’ve now turned to EMDR therapy, which has great outcomes in terms of healing from childhood trauma, which I’ll blog about at a later time. I’ve also started to become aware of some of my coping and self-soothing strategies. I struggle with personal space, especially if I’m in public and around men I don’t know. When I’m standing in line at a coffee shop or the grocery store, and there’s a man behind me standing too close, I tense up. I’ve had to turn around and ask the person to please take a step back. The same happens when I’m on a crowded subway when traveling or anywhere else that gives the feeling of being confined or too close in proximity to men. I am also incredibly sensitive to getting unwanted attention from men, especially when I perceive it to be aggressive or violating of my personal space in any way. So when a man came up to me while grocery shopping two weeks ago, called me “exotic” and said he’d like to take me out for coffee, it took a millisecond to become triggered, anxious and angry. I wanted to abandon my shopping cart and run out of the store. It took me the rest of the evening to calm myself down and feel safe again. I try to avoid riding the elevator in my apartment building alone with another man and when I’ve had to, I have my keys in one hand and my phone in another, pretending to look busy so I can avoid conversation. This may all sound extreme, but it’s my current coping mechanism to feel safe. The brain does not differentiate between types of threatening situations when you have an overactive amygala. Which I do. I’ve been blessed with a handful of male friends (i.e. defined by those I can speak to more about than solely work), whom I also work with as colleagues. Trust has obviously been developed through a working relationship, so there’s no discomfort during interactions. But the thought of “getting to know someone” for the sake of marriage isn’t something I’m comfortable with at this point in time. I know that I have issues around safety and trust, and these will have to be reconciled before I can even think about that. I’m sure there will be people who read this and wonder if I’m making things up about being sexually abused (Note: The false reporting rate for sexual abuse is around 1%-2%, which is the lowest of all crimes). Or they’re confused about why it took me so long to know what “happened” to me and to finally get support. And both of these thoughts are OK and again, most likely stems from ignorance on this topic. The reason why I am sharing all of this is because I know that there are many girls, boys, men and women who may be reading this and they too have been sexually abused. Both within the mainstream community, but also within the Muslim one too. I’m currently working with a couple of families to get their daughters support for the sexual abuse they’ve endured. I met with a family last week and for the first time, I disclosed that I too had been sexually abused. I explained that I know how their daughter is feeling, that I am so thankful for them being such supportive parents, and that they’re doing the right thing by getting her the support she needs. I spoke about their daughter’s need to process what happened and to learn healthy coping strategies. And that the sexual abuse was not her fault, and it was definitely not theirs.
Seeing the difference this made with the family leads me to believe that I’ve been put through this trial for a reason. I don’t think Allah puts anyone through anything without a very strong and valid reason, although it may take us a while to understand what this is. For me, it took approximately 24 years. But I finally know where the passion and conviction comes from when I speak about sexual abuse: it’s directly from my own experiences. I know what it’s like to live with shame for so many years and what it does to you. I know what it’s like to feel anger, anxiety, and stress after being triggered, yet not being able to stop it. I know what it’s like to play certain memories over and over again in your head, with certain parts blank, so you’re never able to know the full extent of your trauma. I know what it’s like to have difficulty trusting people, even though their intentions may be pure, because there’s too much risk involved.
I get it.
To deal with the truth of having been sexually abused has been incredibly challenging, on top of going through divorce and supporting my mom with hers – but I have hope. Both my faith in Allah and giving purpose to my experiences are the two things that keep me going. I can’t take away what happened to me, but I trust that I will reconcile with it and will heal inshallah. Allah has given me platforms to use my experiences as a means to educate others about sexual abuse, especially within our communities. I do not take “no” as an answer from anyone when I propose that initiatives be undertaken to educate children, youth and parents. And Alhamdulillah, while it has taken a lot of patience, great strides have been made.
Giving up is not something I’ve ever done. And I never will. On a personal level, I’m starting to get the support I need and inshallah, it’s going to help me heal from this. Twenty-four years is a long time to carry the burden of trauma on your shoulders. I know for certain that there are others even within my own social circle who have been sexually abused – whether they are aware of it or not. I don’t mean to be restrictive to the Muslim community since sexual abuse knows no boundaries, but there’s such a stigma that I imagine many Muslim survivors are not getting the support they need. And everyone deserves to heal.
If you’re reading this and need support or you know someone who has been sexually abused, there is support available. If you’re local to Calgary, contact Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse for information and to set up free counselling. They have a team of dedicated and educated counsellors available and a 24-hour crisis line. If you’re not local to Calgary but located within Canada, the Kids Help Phone has a 24-hour number for support and they also offer online support via a chat feature on their website. They take calls for kids and youth up to the age of 22. Naseeha, a Muslim support line, also has counsellors available, but their call lines are only open for a limited amount of time each day. For more specific resources in your area around sexual abuse, search for and contact your local agency. Every major Canadian city, and I am sure the same holds true in the United States, has such agencies and crisis line. For information about sexual abuse and violence, please visit the HEART Women and Girls website. They offer a virtual peer support program for girls and women who have been sexually abused, and these individuals have been trained in this area. There are also blogs written by women who share their experience of being sexually abused, as well as many other resources. If you need more information, you can contact me via HEART under the “Who We Are” tab. I’d be happy to try and help out in any way that I can. I plan to continue blogging about this topic, both around my own healing process and also for educational purposes. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetime. This statistic holds true for our Muslim communities. And the only way we can support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable is if we start talking about this without any shame or guilt. I’ve started the conversation. Now let’s see where we can take it.
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