By: Sanbula Zaidi
Throughout my entire childhood, I was haunted by an omnipresent boogeyman.
My mother, coming from a background of rich storytellers, had many ways to ensure compliant behaviour. There was usually little discussion as to what the root cause of her concerns were. We didn’t make our beds? A giant cat was going to come eat us. Homework wasn’t done? We were going to
be shipped off to boarding school. We grew up terrified of felines and headmasters.
But one thing that she did stress was that in every corner, lurked a man who was capable of sexual assault. It was our duty as women to avoid it at all costs.
It came at the expense of our social lives. As all the other girls in my class joined Brownies then Girl Scouts, selling cookies from door-to-door, I watched from a distance. “Ringing random strangers’ doorbells?” my mother asked incredulously. “Why don’t their parents just write the ransom note themselves?”
Sleepovers also were a forbidden rite of passage, no matter how much
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I begged or pleaded. Homes were filled with fathers, brothers, male family members, all with rampant sexual desires. Sleepovers were the perfect opportunity for
assault to occur. “You’re sleeping, completely defenseless,” my mother explained calmly to me when I was ten. “You can’t even protect yourself.” At school, I was plagued by the ever-increasing chasm of school politics as all the girls in my class
giggled over how one of our classmates had gotten diarrhea at the last sleepover and I couldn’t join in.
I was taught to be aware of who may be a potential rapist as well. My mother
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was quite convinced that one of my classmates’ father was a pedophile. She concluded this after one Halloween when he had dressed up as a mad scientist, and his eccentricity made her uneasy. “I don’t know,” she said casually. “He seems like a nice man. But be careful around him, Sweety.” Her offhand remarks resonated with me, which is why I ran hysterically out of the room when we were alone once.
Family members weren’t off-limits either. “You
never know what could happen,” my mother warned me before I was left alone with my uncle in Pakistan for a few hours. “Just lock your door.” She had heard the hushed stories of sexual assault at the hands of family members and she wasn’t taking any chances.
My mother always feared what men were capable of. Even if she respected and loved them, she was wary. For her, inside every man, there lay an insidious beast, unsatiated, ready to pounce. She forgave it as a biological compulsion. She was not pleased with it; she couldn’t explain why she thought men were unable to control themselves. To her, it was as innate as a man to have uncontrollable sexual urges as was her mother-in-law’s inability to refrain from cutting remarks. My mother just accepted it, even if she didn’t like it.
For all the years of talk about how I was supposed to avoid assault, rape and molestation, we never discussed what happens after. What happens after you are assaulted, raped, and molested.
To my mother, as long as you took the steps of protecting yourself, nothing could harm you. You were assaulted if you were an avaraaghardi, an Urdu term for a female who likes to go out and not stay home. You were raped if you were drinking and in the company of men. You were molested if you were naive and unaware.
When she learned that someone in our family had been the victim of assault, she was at a loss as of what to do. She didn’t shame, accuse or berate. But she didn’t have the emotional tools to process the aftermath. Her entire life, she had passed on the tradition of warning young women how to prevent, but not how to cope afterwards.
The recent rape case in Delhi caused an uproar in Western media, and then quietly receded in the back. But it remains in the forefront in South Asian society. It has provoked a lot of discussion, which is much-needed. And on the other end of the specrum, being under global scrutiny has also caused defensiveness, shame, and discomfort.
This defensiveness, shame and discomfort is distinct. It is telling of our knee-jerk reaction when it comes to discussing the darker parts of the shared South Asian experience, and as a whole, the shared experience of women, men, and children everywhere who are impacted.
the question we have to ask ourselves now is, what do we do now? Where do we go from here?
And the answer can only be discovered by rewriting the script to tell the story of what happens after, and not just before.