Photo: Flickr / Ashley Rose

Hiding shame in our closets

I can’t laugh at jokes the way I used to. I also cannot shop the way I used to.

I was at a beauty products store during my trip in India. I was picking out a skin moisturizer and the shop attendant politely stepped in and handed me another moisturizer. This one was even more special because it was also a ‘fairness cream’. I told him that I refused to buy it, specifically because it was a fairness cream and that I am comfortable in my skin, thankyouverymuch. I am sure the attendant was puzzled but I simply could not let the moment pass. Somebody had to give them a big, fat hint.

I find myself reacting the same way when people joke about unnecessary or sexist things. I simply have no tolerance for unnecessary, demeaning things. Thank God I’m in my 30s now.

It has now been a year since an incident of sexual assault within my extended family. I had written a piece then, and buried it among all my incomplete writings. I am bringing it up now because it bares the hypocrisy of family systems, and the way this hypocrisy hides the perpetrators. I think we need to talk.

Last year, at this time, a cousin (at 21 years of age) was sexually assaulted by another cousin (at 56 years of age). The week-long court ordeal brought home many truths and uncomfortable questions about the demons hiding in our cultural closet.

The courtroom embodies the frustrations and tribulations of being a woman: she is violated once again through these not-always-eloquent verbal battles. I eyed the men, the other uncles and cousins who came to support the perpetrator and wondered how they managed to sit with stoic faces while the intimate details were battled over. I wondered when the case would be over; how would they face the girl’s family having been a supporter of the perpetrator? But hey, that’s what families do. There is no spine in family relations, you simply bunch up and turn up at community events to appear a mass of solidarity.

Speaking from a South Asian perspective, this trial raised uncomfortable questions, to which few are willing to answer the question at the core: what is family? Like religion, is it simply a matter of luck (or the lack of it) that we are associated with our families by birth? In Islam, there is a huge emphasis on maintaining family ties. Refusing to do so might make you lose your real estate in heaven. But we are not told what the repercussions are if any member is to cross the boundaries of their relationships. In this blob of solidarity there are many boundaries which we are obligated to comply with.

When these are crossed, what should we do? The first reaction is to brush it under the carpet, to avoid looking at it – to expect it to self-destruct. The first reaction is always to be silent, to avoid sharing. This is what ‘good women’ do. This is the moral test of a woman’s character: she must excel at keeping silent. Complaining is what sluts do.

This is not family: this is the creation of the perfect conditions for men to overstep their boundaries. All the previous silences on such violations within the family have only birthed a new victim. Nothing honourable came out of it. The shame was a chain carried by all the women, and it silently mutates them from within. Yet, that man schmoozed along, as a respectable community member, free of any guilt or slander. In that courtroom, you witness that justice is more than a tingle in our spine. It consists not only of evidence, but also of the human talent of twisting and turning events and words to fit in with a pre-conceived image. Despite the attempt to shame the woman, she eventually won the case.

My teacher, Sheikh Akram Nadwi says that the fundamental problem in our society is that women are not considered humans, and that they are convinced to give up their basic rights. This is almost to say that we foster a hatred for women. The respect for a woman should remain the same across the board, whether they are related to you or not. There is no justification for abuse, no reason and no excuse. It is not because she wore certain clothes or because her parents must have given her too much freedom or because she was asking for it in any other way. Is the same true for all victims — that they were asking for it in their hijabs and shalwar kameez, and despite calling the man a brother or an uncle?

Someone shared a brilliant tweet, which I paraphrase: when you want to character-assassinate a woman or comment on her character, write it down on paper and send it to your mother.

Being family is not enough of an excuse to hide such men. Issues need to be addressed. If the family’s honour was such an important thing, then that man should have been ashamed of his actions. It was never about the girl. But it eventually becomes so. The solace at this point is that history is never kind to such men. The women who make it through this hell are heroes. Not survivors, they are heroes and nothing less.