By Sheerin Siddique
Pushback. Unsolicited advice. Threatening jargon. Incomplete information. Unforeseen intimidation. Mischaracterized evidence. Cold isolation. Deafening silence. Unfair commentary. One-sided assumptions. Crude judgments. Never-ending blame.
Plain old-fashioned pushback.
This is what trickled down when I was “coming out” to the world, especially to the Muslim-American community.
I was invited on April 30 to be a part of a guest panel on a Detroit radio talk show on station 910 AM called Between the Lines with Fatima Salman, an all-rounded and inspirational female Muslim activist. Being the last day of April, she paid tribute to Sexual Assault Awareness Month, bravely honoring the hot topics of female genital mutilation and sexual abuse.
The panel consisted of therapists, organization founders and survivors. Several Muslims voiced their approval for it, acknowledging the dire need for this silenced topic, which the Muslim community all too often brushes under the rug. There were others, however, who criticized the taboo issue, the show and its panelists, including me.
Although the promotional flier plastered on social media never mentioned my role on the show, it, nevertheless, piqued my community’s interest. Some people automatically realized that I was speaking from the perspective of a survivor. Within minutes of the announcement going viral, unwelcomed and harsh commentary began orbiting around me.
Ordered to be Silent
Although I have been assaulted many times over the years, each time I have been commanded by my elders, both men and women, to stay silent. The art of sexual purity, modesty and privacy took a higher precedence than anything else, even at the cost of safety. If I spoke out, I was going against the cultural norm, which the Muslim community doesn’t adjust too well.
Abuse after abuse, rape after rape and assault after assault, resulted in pointing the finger of blame at me. I have been yelled at time and again to stop uttering such filthy comments. I was told to have haya (modesty) and sabr (patience), to stop lying and to act like a good Muslim girl.
Society constantly coined me as a thorn in my family’s side since I was born a female. Now, I was a shame to the family because somehow, I was the evil one to have had such an impure act caused onto me. Even though everybody around me pretended like nothing happened, it was not something that I forgot about.
I felt shameful for having something so dirty inflicted on me. I felt guilty that these men continued to assault many more children and women than I could keep track of, which festered inside me for years.
Eventually, the horrific acts and violence became normalized in my mind and life. I accepted them because the damage of rape had settled in as a part of my everyday life from such a tender age. Men and women turned against me and subliminally made me an enemy to myself.
When I decided to break my silence as an adult, the pattern repeated itself. This cold front emerged from people whom I admired, respected and grew up with. I was called a “call girl,” a “whore” and an “embarrassment to the family.” It was demanded that I adopt an alternate last name to avoid shaming the family.
I Decided to Come Out as a Sexual Abuse Survivor
My community quickly and presumptuously concluded that my coming out was an impulsive decision, which was clouding my judgment. But, when I said that I had thought about this for a long time, I was now “secretive” for hiding my plans. Without any consideration for the abuse I had gone through, ghastly assumptions that I was coming out “to gain sympathy and pity,” to “take revenge” on my religion and “to play the victim” were the only phrases that vibrated through my closed surroundings.
They told me “to get over it,” blamed me for holding onto grudges and challenged me on how a devout Muslim couldn’t practice the art of forgiveness. True, some of the assaults occurred so long ago, but the psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual damage that stripped me of my innocence and silenced my voice continued to follow my show all throughout my adulthood.
Because I did not receive mental health support, which was another stigma in the Muslim community, I was stuck at a standstill. In addition, each trauma brought up the previous trauma, which erupted my childhood trauma. Now, I was left with a bag of overflowing pain that I neither could hide nor deal with without proper therapy.
People alleged that I was a hypocrite for wearing hijab, praying and fasting, and I wasn’t worthy of continuing with these religious obligations towards my creator. It was at that point I realized why God instructs us to be careful on who we confide in. He can easily forgive, but a human was only a human who could not look past a person’s shortcomings.
People who had never been assaulted in any way blatantly told me that if I was truly abused, I should have been handcuffed, kidnapped and beaten up by a stranger. If I was truly harmed, I would have reported it to the authorities and to my family. And, if my family didn’t believe me, then I would have made more noise.
I had no right to call it abuse if I knew this man or if I didn’t scream or fight him. Finally, because of the minor mistakes I made, I could not call it sexual assault.
All my mistakes were flaunted and dangled in front of my eyes. My mistakes that were just plain mistakes were now unjustifiably used against me to imply that I wanted this, that I should have expected this or somehow that I deserved this. People falsely reiterated that I was just “trying to make excuses for sleeping around,” not realizing that I was only 10 when the first trauma happened and not comprehending that rape is not about sex, but rather about power and control.
Rather than understanding how hurt I was, my “mistake” of not telling anybody was what everyone focused on. The “mistake” of holding onto my past overpowered my feelings of coldness, isolation and violation of my space, my trust and my dignity. Instead of being proud of speaking out about this issue, I was ignored, degraded, hurt and shunned beyond my wildest imagination.
My dignity and self-respect that had once clothed me in front of my immediate world and community was now stripped away and replaced with the hateful rhetoric of blame and shame all because I was speaking out. I was still the same person just an hour ago, but because I chose not to be silenced any longer, I was now dubbed a slew of negative titles.
Without knowing or hearing my story, the community had already dressed me with a big bold Scarlett “D” letter (for “divorced”); now, they embroidered a big red “R” (for “raped”) onto my body just because they were uncomfortable addressing this issue.
Within the 48 hours before the talk show, I was bombarded with conflicting scholarly advice that had me doubting my ability to continue this path. When I turned to the Imam (religious leader) of my Muslim community as a place of sanctuary and safety, I was met with similar stigma.
Rather than any fatherly advice or compassionate support, he coldly instructed me to cancel the event and tell the station that I would not come on. He explicitly commanded not to go on the show because this would be a very bad thing. “Cover up [the assailant’s] sins and God would cover yours,” he told me. “Don’t try to imitate the western world. God is the best of judges and He will give me my justice in the Afterlife.”
First, I wasn’t sure how rape was considered a sin on my end. Second, I wasn’t even naming my perpetrators or disclosing my relationships to them. All I intended to do was talk about the effects and importance of speaking out about sexual assault. Third, speaking out about oppression and violence was not something I was doing to copy the western world. And even so, this world that I now live in has a lot of good to offer.
Instead of responding to the above, he continued with saying to let it go, to have sabr and pray and to leave this up to God. To be honest, I loathe those words. These types of suggestions have secretly followed my shadow throughout my life, continuously haunting me with pain. They have repeatedly echoed in my ears since before I could remember and transport me back to my past assaults.
All through my life, I have been told that I am a girl, and I bear responsibility for everything that occurs in life — because this is just how God created women. Our role is to struggle and give up our lives for the world, especially our loved ones. Because of how we were created, we must have more sabr (patience) and continue to tolerate the opposite gender’s behavior, since the male gender tends to be hot-tempered, violent and impulsive.
Only one scholar brought to my attention that under the words of my Lord in the Quran, I have a right to seek justice. Yes, we should cover each other’s sins, but we have a right to seek justice when wronged if we so choose. I am not a scholar, so I cannot comment anything further than what I was told.
I have never been told to seek my justice. Instead, I have been met with comments alluding to the fact that I was attempting to play God by tackling such a global issue. In addition, I’ve been advised that God is the best of all judges so leave it to Him to give my retribution in the way He feels fit.
Justice is Mine to Have, to Seek
I ask myself so many questions: Why is it that I always must let things go? And that too, for being a woman? How many times am I supposed to forgive men for the oppression I suffered? How long must I live through these comments that continue to soak into my soul? Why do people keep robbing away my rights? What kind of systematic oppression is society inflicting on women like me? And, how many women are suffering in silence if this is the response of my community leaders?
Although I do not hold any concrete answers to these questions, I do know that I don’t have to always let things go. And, more than that, I cannot let it go. Sexual assault causes psychological damage, especially when it is committed against a child. I was only 10 years old, scared, confused and hurt. I cannot forgive anybody, not yet, especially when society continuously negates my feelings and rights.
I have been accused of playing God by trying to tackle a global issue, but I at least have not over-ridden the rights that God has bestowed upon the oppressed.
Despite all the re-victimization that my community handcuffed me to, I held my head high, stepped into the studio, owned the moment and spoke my piece. The panelists and I spoke about the guilt, self-shame and blame and the silence survivors endure. We discussed the harm that ensues after sexual abuse inflicts, such as depression, PTSD, attempted suicide and isolation.
I was transparent, honest and bold. I didn’t hold back because I was on a mission. I raised eyebrows. I challenged pre-conceived notions. I ruffled some feathers. I ignited questions. But above all, I, with the support of the show, unlocked the channels of communication. And, I am so glad I did.
This process has opened my eyes to the world I live it. It scares me to think that this is the type of advice women are being presented with: To equate the crime of sexual assault as only a sin and to cover these sins up. It angers me to hear leaders ripping the mercy, compassion and justice that my religion stands for and inserting their own half-truths and falsehoods to avoid such a taboo topic.
They have taken upon themselves to undermine God’s commandment and bury the ruling about seeking justice. It saddens me that although we have evolved into consciously acknowledging women’s rights, we still have a long way to go. And, it frustrates me to see the walls that keep getting built and erected right in front of my eyes.
Regardless of these ongoing battles, I am not defeated. I will not stop speaking out. I will break these barriers and keep the conversation going. I will share my story and fight.
God showed me those people who will never support me in this endeavor. But when He closed this door, He opened several more who have been my web of support, love and empathy. I have walked through the trials of sexual assault alone, and if I’ve come this far, I can go just a little more.
Check out the video of Shireen Siddique on Between the Lines with Fatima Salman