Two girls. Two survivors. Two stories.
The next two articles in the series will take you on a journey through the life of two Muslim women who were the victims of sexual abuse in their childhood. Their experiences broke them, hurt them, scarred them, but also transformed them.
The main purpose of the next two articles is to give you hope that you can and will get through this. Through faith, through support, through therapy. Whilst reminding the world of the reality of sexual abuse and how it can affect an individual long into adulthood - physically, mentally and spirituality.
Trigger Warning: The stories contain details of sexual abuse which some may find distressing. Whilst the stories are real. The names of the victims have been changed to protect their identity.
I was just 4 when the abuse started. A chubby, long-nosed, rosy 4 year old with short hair that was either put into a neat ponytail or brushed down to sit just on my shoulders. I was quiet. Reserved. Even at that age, I liked to observe and interact from afar. Listen, more than talk. Introvert traits were embedded in my DNA. I don’t remember much about that age. I think many of us would struggle to recall details of our moments in reception. However, I do remember strongly, a memory of what I would now consider my first experience of PTSD.
It was an evening and I was supposed to be asleep. My brother and I shared a single room for many years till he went into his own. I disliked bedtimes. It’s when my whole life events would begin to play back to me. Or rather, at that age, it was more that all these big feelings would begin and cause me to feel extremely restless and stressed.
On that particular night, I found myself in a greater restlessness. That week we had had a new teacher join our school. A male teacher who stood out for his tall and lean build. I remember sitting at the dinner table, munching my food, when he walked past us with his tray in his hand. He caught my sight and winked. I shuddered and looked away. I looked up and found him passing another table and winking again. This time with others. My heart felt a little relief. Only a little. For fear began to seep its way into my body, like a snake, slithering through it, until it reached my chest and I began to feel instant panic. I wanted to do nothing more at that moment, than to just go home.
I would question things then too. But unlike other 4 year olds surrounding me, the questions in my mind were so different.
“What if he’s going to harm me?”
“Why is he winking at me? I feel scared.”
“What if he likes me?”
I often wondered how I even had this level of perception at that age, but now looking back, I realise just how much trauma affects the mind, especially of one that is innocent and pure. My pure mind was already indoctrinated, scared and cynical about people and situations I found myself in.
That night, I couldn't contain those big feelings in my small body. I found myself trembling and overcome with a fear that felt like the world was closing in on me. I rushed to my parents room, my mother came out and calmed me down. Her soft touch was usually enough to comfort me, but that evening, I could not be consoled. My only words were, “I am petrified…” through drenched eyes and tears streaming my face. I had heard my teacher use the word petrified and a week before, I had excitedly shared the new big word i learnt with my father. But this time, there was no excitement. Just fear. My brother watched from his bedroom door.
Eventually I broke it to mum. I didn’t want to go to school because I was petrified of Mr.S because he winks at everybody. I remember my brother laughing innocently. “Is that it?” my mother’s reassurance and brother's laughter was to no avail. My body and my mind were in fight or flight mode and I knew nothing more, except to flee from what my mind was perceiving as a danger. I obviously still went to school the next day, and the next, and the day after, wishing deep inside, that I would fall sick so I could stay home and be safe.
Mr.S continued his winking. He spread butter on our toasts at the breakfast club. Disciplined us when we were being naughty. Helped us with our numbers. He continued to wink though. I eventually figured it was not sinister but a way of being friendly to all students. Despite this, my heart still trembled every time. Other than the winks, he was a great teacher and I so wish I was able to appreciate that in those years at school.
But PTSD crippled me. My sense of suspicion and danger projected on even the ordinary people in my life. If you’ve read till here, I really hope I haven’t confused you. Bear with me, as I try to focus in on those memories.
The abuse itself is not a detail I feel comfortable going into in depth, I don’t think it will be of benefit to anyone who reads it. Though, there are important details I wish for you to know, and I would love for you to make a note every time your mind shouts, ‘That is a sign!’ or ‘Yup, a red flag.’ It’s important we know the signs of a potential abuser whilst realising they come in unique shapes, sizes and it's never the ‘one size fits all’ with such people.
The Family Circle
In short, or as short as it can get, I was sexually abused by a male 'uncle' on my father's side of the family (not all uncles are like this, don’t forget). My memory of the actual abuse at that specific age was of being dropped off to his house where he lived with his wife. There was a window, whereby our end of school clashed with my father's start tine of work which coincided with my mum already being at work and having not yet left. That window of time, meant we had to be watched by someone. Sometimes it was my maternal aunt, other times my grandma. Though most days, mum would be home before dad had to leave. But in those other times, when it was my aunt and uncle watching over us, I remember the abuser taking full advantage of that window of time.
It began with a supposed act of kindness or friendliness (notice the connection now with the winking and why the friendly gesture triggered me?). That friendliness was initiated first by taking me to the shops to buy sweets with his daughter. Other times, it was the park. He would then, after returning back home, sit and eat with us, and eventually it ended with ushering me to his room where he would abuse me.
I recall a school picture of me sitting on his bedside table. My innocent face and features, smiling yet the eyes obviously told another story. After being ushered, I remember details on some occasions, but on others, my memory fails me, I see blank. All I know is that each time there’s a blank is most probably because my privacy, my space, my blossoming childhood, was being violated. My mind, the one I would go onto become so fascinated by, would switch off and enter survival mode.
The abuse continued from that point for another 6 years, sporadically. Whenever we would visit or they would visit us. Whether I was alone or with my family, the abuser found a sick, hidden and deceiving way to get me away from the social gathering, even if it was disguised as me assisting in running an errand or requesting I help his daughter with something upstairs. I was so young. So afraid, but also frozen. Unable to say a word.
As a 5, 6 and 7 year old, you're so trusting of the world, I know this more now after exploring the intricacies of how a child’s brain and worldview is shaped. Suddenly, in the prime of that formation, someone comes and steals everything from you, giving you another view of the world and perceptions of right and wrong that is distorted, wrong, disturbing and based on threat and fear. That someone comes along and takes away the one thing that takes years to earn and that if taken away from a child, is almost impossible to regain: The Gift of Trust.
His wish was my command. That’s what I was made to believe. That’s the mantra I was told. It made sense to a young child who is still learning independence. Adult says, child does.
If he buys me all my favourite things and loves me, then he must be a good person, and if he says I shouldn’t tell and I do, that's bad and I will get in trouble. My thoughts would grow louder and louder as the abuse continued.
Why Don't You Speak Up?
People often wonder, why sexual abuse victims, or any victims of abuse don’t speak up. They often question and ask, “Well, why didn’t you tell your parents?”, “How did they let that happen to you?”, “Couldn’t you say no?”
Firstly, children could not know any better. They are an empty vessel which is filled. They don’t know yet, what is right or wrong, what is a crime, what is abuse. It just feels wrong but that wrong feeling is invalidated by the abuser. They use this to justify their wrong and manipulate a child who is innocent and pure, in thinking that this is okay.
Secondly, if you know a thing or two about such trauma, you will know that one of the biggest feelings a victim will experience is shame. Not only shame, but embarrassment, unworthiness and, helplessness. Their self-esteem shatters and they only know themselves in light of what their abuser wants from them or thinks of them. They then, even at a small age, carry those feelings with them everywhere, placing the blame on their own shoulders instead. Because there must be something wrong with them, that's why they feel pain.
I was all too familiar with the shame and blame. Blame, because you're just a child, children lie, and children say silly things. Blame, because he to the world, was a 'good' man, a husband, a father, a grown-up, and no one saw the manipulative adult who could defend himself and silence a child. Again and again, it is drilled into you by the abuser and you feel suffocated and trapped. Your voice eventually drowns and you live your life walking on eggshells, but also not realising you are being controlled and violated.
Saying no and opening up also becomes increasingly difficult when your safety is at stake. And when you're just a child and your abuser is an adult, your only wish is survival. And my entire childhood and teenage-hood thereafter was about surviving.
Looking back, I wonder why my parents didn’t notice. And I realise abusers, paedophiles are skilled at their work. They come across as innocent, caring people but under the mask they are ill-intentioned and deceitful. Only after self-gratification and personal pleasure and fulfilment of desire. I have strong memories of the abuse itself after the age of 6 they’re more clearer, more graphic, more real than the blurred ones of when I was 4 and 5. On what are supposed to be beautiful occasions with family and loved ones, Eid, outings, adventure park visits, beach trips, every single one of them were ruined due to my crippling fear which usually resulted in a full blown tantrum for my parents to try and dissolve. Or because I got molested on those occasions too, if he was there at those events. He always found a way to sideline me. I would cry hysterically on Eid and refuse to go out with my family on trips outdoors because I didn’t know how to enjoy a be free and happy like my cousins, my classmates. Like the normal people.
What eventually began as blame transformed into, “I am strange and weird and not normal.”
That shame, fear, anxiety, self-hate and lack of self-esteem coupled with mistrust and depression was just the beginning of what would accompany me for the rest of my life.
The Journey Back
Yet, I pulled through the darkest, murkiest parts of it with prayer, hope, a strength that only Allah can give, as well as a loving family and now, a supportive, understanding husband. I still don't know how I went from the broken, traumatised child to a mostly healed, grateful adult. I can only say that it's Allah that granted that tawfiq and ease.
What brought me ultimate comfort was the Qur’an. I remember sitting against the heater in my small school that was actually a house which had been transformed into a school. I would have my Qur’an in my hand, with an English translation and I would read and reflect and resort to another bubble where it was just me and my Lord and His words.
I found so much sakeenah (tranquility) in His Words and particularly in the story of Prophet Yusuf, I told myself I would name my first boy, if Allah was to bless me with children, after this incredible man. I spent a lot of time just by myself, viewing the world from such a different lens to others around me, I didn’t allow myself to enjoy anything fully though. No event, no happy moment… everything had to be suppressed and grey because in the most beautiful moments of my childhood, and on the happiest of occasions, I was being groomed. This automatically made me believe that any good moments or any happiness will be soon followed by something tragic. So I lived in constant anxiety. Waiting for something to happen. Praying it wouldn’t. Trying to battle the impulsive and obsessive thoughts and whilst all those things bubbled in my heart and mind, I continued sitting against those heaters, my hand holding the Mushaf, finding peace only inside those pages.
My anxiety to this day lingers on, but it is not as crippling as it used to be. Anxiety as a teen meant I could not function or do anything without repeating what I was doing. From Salaah and Wudhu to writing in my text book and getting dressed. My mind was a cage of thoughts, images and fears wrapped around, intertwined, and twisted into one giant knot that prevented me from thinking positive things, hoping, dreaming, wishing, seeing a future that was bright, and it took from me even the small joys, like eating food.
I would repeat things because I would get negative images or thoughts would plague my mind, and I somehow, due to my childhood trauma, had formed a belief, that if I had done something and had bad thoughts whilst doing it, that thought or fear would come true, It felt like a disoriented, traumatised and disturbed mind of a child was still functioning in this now adult body. It was confusing and really made my life so difficult. I would be the last one out of the prayer hall, because I struggled to complete salaah within a reasonable time. My textbooks were full, completely full of scribbles and words that had been striked through. I could never get dressed without breaking down into tears because it had been 30 minutes and I couldn’t get on my clothes. After making Wudhu with the freezing tap water in the outdoor ablution area at school, whilst in the middle of the icy winters, I would be drenched and shivering and praying for relief.
It was like my own mind was torturing me. Through it all I kept praying for relief and found myself only at peace when my eyes closed at night to the sound of the Qur’an.
It Takes Time
Relief soon followed. Allah promises ease. It took one book to change my life around and my perspective. My fears were in my mind but the true fear that was more important to me above all, was the fear of displeasing Allah. I picked up Sh Abu Ameena Bilal Phillips book on Tawheed one day and inside he had mentioned how in the past, the people of Jahiliyyah would believe in superstitions, such that if they saw a bird flying towards the left they would perceive it as bad luck. The realisation, that my acting upon my own fears and beliefs - even though they weren’t actually in my control, shook me. From that day on, I thought twice when I felt the impulse to repeat things. I clenched my eyes tight if a fear came to mind as to not dwell on it. I tried so hard in remembering beautiful things. Jannah, our Messenger (saw), rivers of honey and milk, Allah Himself. It must have taken months, even a year to get to a stage where I no longer repeated things, where my mind was no longer screaming so loud. I was no longer a slave to it.
Things didn’t just one day get better, but overtime, I began finding ways to process things better. Life still felt grey at times though. I was still constantly exhausted all the time, falling in every couple of months to something or the other. My body and mind all these years later were still being affected.
I found a routine helped. Planning out my day. Writing in a journal. I’d write everywhere. Having a place to go to other than school and home was wonderful. I got involved in volunteering, started A-levels at a new school which meant a fresh start and began working on my book. I had waves and bouts of depression still that sent me to the lowest point - I’d feel suicidal in the moments and then sit and repent at Tahajjud for feeling those thoughts in the first place. I wish I knew then that those thoughts were not in my control and I was not sinful for them. At the same time, there was nothing sweeter than those moments I spoke to my Lord and weeped to Him when the world slept.
There was so much more that happened between then and now, many friends came and went, I lost dear ones, published a book, started finding joy in the small things and went for Umrah which in short was a rebirth. I began developing interests for the first time in my life, started memorising Qur'an consistently and seeking knowledge, began a degree which combined both my passions and started teaching little ones - their innocence was so healing for me. Being able to give them a happy childhood and memories and care mended my heart each time I taught. I also broke the news to my family when I got engaged, as the realisation that I was about to spend the rest of my life with a man I don’t really know, was triggering. Their love and support was enough to ground me even if my parents' understanding of mental health and the action they didn’t take with the perpetrator wasn’t what I expected. My husband's fountain of love, support and understanding and acceptance was the most healing part of my journey and still is. Followed by counselling, CBT and being pushed to discover who I am after all these years. My husband encouraged me to study, to do things for myself so I can make up for what I missed, and it is of late, at the age of twenty something that I felt like I found the true me that was buried under the dark past.
I have forgiven my abuser, who apparently had become religious after his Hajj trip.
Two kids later and I happened to be in his presence when he was over at my parents not long ago. I entered the room with salaam and was able to sit in the same room (there were about 10 of us), and play with my children without feeling fear, shame, or triggered. I feel healed, confident, grateful and supported. Allah will bring him to account in the next life. Allah knows what I went through and nothing else gives me strength and closure than that.
Those spiritual habits I formed when I was going through severe depression and OCD have stayed with me and if anyone was to ask me if I had a chance to relive my life and not have gone through all those things, would I say yes? My answer, no. This was Allah’s plan. My abuse is not who I am. It is just a part of my journey. I am more than what happened to me. And the connection I gained with Allah because of it, is priceless. I can’t explain it. Those years where I found peace nowhere, and in no one except Allah brought me an inner unmatched tranquility even if my mind and body were in pain and distress. The experiences matured me and made me observe life with a deeply ingrained purpose. That purpose is where I found the faint hope and waves of dreams that formed earnest Du'aas,. Each of them blossomed into reality. Amongst them the opportunity to nurture the next generation and help others.
So Alhamdulilah for all the pieces of the puzzles. As a victim, you don’t have to let your abuse define you. I have dreams, aspirations and a vision that is fuelled and driven by what I went through. If I hadn't gone through it, I wouldn’t be here today pouring my everything into my vision. Allah has blessed me with beautiful children who I want to raise with the Tarbiyah I wasn’t given or was prevented from and an ability to write and string sentences with a hope to benefit the Ummah
So my dear brother and sister, there is hope. Even if it feels like you will never heal. You are more than your abuse. You are a survivor. You are strong. You have a story to tell. This is just one chapter, there are many more to come InshaAllah. Yes, you will carry some baggage with you as you journey through life, but when you get the right help, they will no longer weigh down on you, you will be aware of them, manage the triggers and process the feeling. There will be regressions, new triggers, bumps and humps and lots of tears of joy sand sadness … but above all you will find peace. Ease will follow. Trust yourself, but most important, Trust Him.
Missed Part 1? Read: The Silent Survivors: An Introduction
Note: This series of articles involves and is written in consultation with clinical psychologists and other industry professionals.
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