*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
In my nearly 21 years of experience as a woman in a conservative religious and cultural minority community, I’ve found that sometimes tradition can be a double-edged sword. It’s strange how I’ve grown up simultaneously reveling in my rich Indian, Muslim culture and its beauty, food, festivities, and values and also resenting its filiopietistic tendencies, patriarchal social structure, and hyper-obsession with honor and status.1 Values that mean well are manipulated to become these ambiguous paradigms that aren’t based in reality.
My cousin, Anita, and I were tomboys as little girls, partners in crime. We took pride in being what we weren’t supposed to be; we played in the dirt, hid the fact that we liked dolls, would never wear make-up and pink dresses like the other girls. We created our own secret language: words for our periods, the ever-inferior terms “ladylike” and “girly girl,” or her adolescent suicidal thoughts. Until middle school, we showered together to save time, a time during which we shared our “deepest, darkest secrets.”
One summer evening during one of our usual huge family gatherings in San Antonio, when our numerous close-knit cousins spent a weekend at our aunt’s enormous house, my cousin revealed something to me in the shower that chilled me to the core despite the hot water streaming over us: our uncle had been molesting her for years, since she was barely a toddler.
“Really?” I felt raw, complicated emotion from within a cavity of my psyche to which I’d never shed light. I felt horrified and sad for her, but I also felt a sense of relief wash over me, through me, and a sudden appreciation for our bond.
“Me, too! Anita, he does it to me, too.” I felt fear and uneasiness admitting something about which I’d never told a soul, something I’d grown up with like an invisible festered limb; it was, unequivocally, a part of me. Yet, I felt a calmness. I knew we could struggle through this together; we even made a new secret code word for our uncle: “It.” I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel as weird or ashamed. I had someone with which to feel equally indignant and protective.
We were both deeply scarred, but we knew I had it worse than she did. In today’s definition, what I suffered is considered by the law as rape, prolonged rape. I was around our uncle more often since I lived in the same neighborhood. I was older, curvier, and I guess I was just more unlucky. I must have also been more silent, more prideful and private about anything that would bruise that pride. I didn’t want to be publicly shamed in my family and conservative community.
Until I reached middle school and became more rebellious, I would just freeze and ignore it until it was over, squeezing my eyes shut or at times pretending to move away in my fake sleep. I can’t even begin to describe the confusion of experiencing something I didn’t know or understand because I was too young to even know what a vagina or the concept of sexuality was. I’d barely even begun switching from speaking Hindi to English before starting school.
I despised my body, despised puberty. What other girls craved I viewed as a curse, the reason that, over time, I was molested more and worse than my cousin was. I strangely hated to look good. We both wore baggy clothes. We hid our bodies and avoided looking feminine in lieu of appearing tough. Of course, now I know it wasn’t just my body, because the abuse was like Cinderella’s evil stepmother: it’s one of my earliest memories from around 3-4 years of age, and it was a part of normal life until 6th or 7th grade. It was all I knew.
Unlike me, Anita was very close to her mother. They shared a mother-daughter relationship I could only envy at that age. I couldn’t comprehend why she’d ever want to tell her mother what was happening, but she did. She told me she was going to, and I made her promise not to talk about me; she talked about me. In retrospect, I’m thankful to her for that.
However, what ensued only strengthened my resolve to keep my secret safe. The next time I was at Anita’s house, her mother inquired for details on what our uncle did and asked that we tell her if it happened again. I denied it stubbornly. I was brought up to worship the values of purity and modesty, and I didn’t want to ruin the way everyone saw me. Then her mother told us that she had spoken to my parents, but we couldn’t speak about it outside of our circle. I wondered why.
I got my answer. It was because it would ruin the complex relationships within my family. Because if my aunt (the abuser’s wife) learned about it, she would be heartbroken after taking care of my jobless, useless, beat-up-dad uncle for so many devoted years just to keep her family unified. Because his place on a registered sex offender list would ruin not only his life but also those of his family members. Because my parents and our whole extended family was very well-respected in our tight-knit, heavily-South-Asian religious community. People knew us. We were somebody. And taking further action would tarnish our name, shame our reputation, and destroy my cousin’s and my honor. Our family would be perceived as messed-up, people you couldn’t trust your daughters around, people whose girls had issues that would be bad influences. While everyone’s family had dirt, ours would be aired out as the public source of gossip. We were at the mercy of society.
So when my parents later prodded me for a confession when I was back home, I continued to deny my involvement. I’m sure my parents knew I was lying, but they eventually stopped asking me.
Nothing happened. No charges were made. No one besides our parents found out. My uncle is old and senile but still a part of our family. I avoided him as much as possible, but I shocked myself with the relief I felt seeing him age, eventually suffering a stroke and memory loss. I wonder if he even remembers what he did to my cousin and me. The abuse stopped sometime in middle school, and I learned from it to speak up for myself. It’s made me the ardent feminist I am today. While the residual effects of childhood abuse didn’t refrain from plaguing me at times, I discovered a sense of strength and resilience.
However, while I see the social movement against domestic and dating abuse gain mainstream acceleration, it’s as if despite all the years, it hasn’t made the same difference within some conservative minority communities. According to the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, a significant concern is the “failure to account for the…current contexts of sexual violence as a tool of subjugation and colonization, in particular as this relates to communities of color.” It’s difficult when the views on sex, virtue, women, reputation and authority are anachronistic and controlled by patriarchal traditions. It’s just taboo to mention these issues.
The Department of Justice also said that in various studies, the majority of offenders of abuse cases were never reported or walked out free. This speaks volumes about our national conscience toward abuse. It’s hidden under the rug, and the crimes aren’t taken seriously. America is still infected with a ‘rape culture.’
A shocking contemporary example of this is the recent acceptance of R&B artist Chris Brown’s comeback at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Three years ago, TMZ revealed how Brown beat up his girlfriend and musical artist Rihanna the day before the Grammy Awards to the point of hospitalization. He was charged with felony criminal threats and released on a $50,000 bail. Immediately thereafter, Brown and the general public appeared to be over it and even blamed Rihanna for making such a big fuss, displaying the tragedy of “second victimization.”
This all came to a climax when Brown was invited back for the first time since the incident to perform at the 2012 Grammy Awards, where he was greeted by female reactions on Twitter and other social media that condoned and encouraged his abuse. Even more, according to ABC News, Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich claimed that the award show had been a victim of the incident—all while Rihanna was neglected.
While the general American society has progressed in reducing assault cases, significant problems remain due to cultural mindsets, particularly among minority communities. Awareness, open conversation, and a shift in thinking are crucial to fight this abuse.
1. filiopietistic: of or relating to an often excessive veneration of ancestors or tradition, according to Merriam-Webster.