Whenever I got beaten badly it was because I was having a ‘lesson’ in reading the Koran. Muslim children are expected to finish reading the Koran by the age of seven. I didn’t. Every time I mispronounced a word I would get a beating. The lessons and beatings carried on till I was 13. They slowly became a habit if I didn’t do something as my mother wanted, if I fell over and ripped my expensive tights, if I couldn’t finish my meal, it seemed just because I existed. By the time I was 18 I was desperate to leave home and go to university.
I wanted to study English; I wanted to be a journalist. But my parents wanted me to be a lawyer. So I dutifully I studied law and then found my voice in the acting scene. I smoked and drank a lot. Being away from home for the first time felt like freedom and also consumed me. I was catching up on all those years of not being allowed out, to speak on the phone, to see friends – like I had been let out of a cage and didn’t know what to do with myself.
I started counselling for the first time. And out poured years and years of pain around the beatings and confusion. Confusion over my father, who was never really around – and when he was, made me feel like the ‘other woman’. The way he looked at me, the way he hugged me. Muslim families are very affectionate, a therapist once said to me. Affection came to mean imposing, intruding, forcing. I’m not sure I even knew what affection was. What would it feel like?
I hit rock bottom at University. Years of pain needed to be released and it ate me up. Finding acting was my lifeline. I could be messy and sexy, loud and crude and get applauded for it. Years of numbing out during the beatings. Acting forced me to be in the moment; it was my breath. I left University and decided to go to drama school. After being the good girl my whole life, I wanted to do something for me. I wanted to share stories. I wanted to change the world, to show others they were not alone. I thought law could have done this but it stifled me. I felt reprimanded all the time. Acting allowed me to play the way I had never done as a child.
I look back and say yes, training as a barrister would have been wiser in the long run. But at 22, all I wanted to do was be free. I met “Nick” in a bar at 22, about to start my new life at drama school. I was late to meet my friend because my mother and I had been arguing again. It was our new habit now. She couldn’t beat me, so she would batter me with words, tell me I was wasting my life, I was a failure, that I was a whore for wanting to be an actress. ‘Only prostitutes become actresses in our culture, and that’s what you will be.’
Every time I went out she warned me about men, about getting raped, about the dangers in the world, about being a bad muslim girl. I walked into the bar and my friend was surrounded by these guys. She always got male attention. I didn’t feel like I did. I felt awkward and shy most of the time. I was a virgin and I felt strange about this, sometimes ashamed, because no one in my circle of friends was one.
And my parents, in their divorce and bitterness to each other, never once asked me over the years ‘Would you like to get married?’ My mother never sat me down to talk about sex. We never discussed me liking someone. Sex was dirty in my house. It was something shameful. I had no siblings, no-one to ask these questions of, and friends told me salacious tales that made my heart and head spin. This wasn’t my life – who was I?
One of the men standing near my friend took an immediate interest in me. And as we all had a drink together he whispered in my ear ‘I want to fuck you till you bleed’. I don’t know why, but I looked down and laughed. At some point in the evening he went out for a smoke. I joined him. He told me about his dad and how his dad thought he was a failure. He seemed like a little lost boy. The way my father used to look when he was drunk. The way my father was, most of the time.
I gave him my number, wrote it on his arm in lipstick. I thought I was being rock and roll. He rang me that evening and we arranged our first date, at which he got so drunk he smashed up the table in a bar, so we got thrown out. It all felt so familiar, so like home, so chaotic – addictive almost. But I also felt numb: like, here I was again with a violent person, having to be the sensible one.
We met again for lunch a few days later – I didn’t want to see him, so I met him in my lunch hour. I kept it brief, I wanted to say this won’t work, let him down gently. Why I felt I owed him an explanation I don’t know. The good girl again.
He seemed so sad, said he didn’t feel his life was going anywhere. I wanted to help him; I wanted to make him feel better, the way I kept trying with my mum. When she would beat me I would say ‘I love you mummy’ hoping it would stop her. It never did. She would look at me and laugh then lock me in a cold room for hours.
I left that lunch date saying no more, he wasn’t for me. But he kept ringing me and asking me to come round to his parents’ house. He seemed so lonely. The way my dad did when he was drinking by himself at night, the way my mum always did. I couldn’t bear that sadness in people. I still can’t. It reels me in.
Okay, yes. ‘It will be fun,’ he said, ‘and I won’t be drunk. I will be on my best behaviour.’ He was over an hour late to pick me up from the station. He lived in Surrey. I could have left then, but I was brought up to be polite, and no one had ever told me about dating. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought the right thing to do would be to wait, as we had agreed.
He was drunk when he turned up and he had brought a mate to drive the car. They kept looking at me in the rear view mirror and laughing. I felt bad. I wanted to get out of the car but I felt frozen. It would be okay. He just needed to sober up, like dad. I didn’t know where they were driving me. I was scared, but it all seemed too late; it all seemed destined. He lived in a huge house with his parents. He showed me the kitchen, made me a G&T and took me to his bedroom. On the landing we passed his sister and brother, his sister glared at me. “Nick” had told me his family were pretty racist. An added dimension.
‘I’ll have a shower and then we’ll go out’ he said. ‘Okay.’ I waited for him. I sipped my G&T. I looked at his small room with the single bed and a coffee table like in students digs. Looked at his bookshelf. Waited for him. Told myself this was romantic, that we were a couple. I didn’t know what dating looked like. Maybe this was it? He came out of the shower and was wrapped in a white towel and still had drops of water on his body. He kissed me. I kissed him back and before I could say or do anything he pushed me onto the bed and was on top of me.
Stop. No. Stop.
He was so much stronger than me. He pinned me down with one hand. He didn’t understand the resistance; he didn’t know I was a virgin. He was drunk and clumsy and kept losing his erection. My hymen resisting. He didn’t break that. How long this went on I don’t know. Me resisting – him forcing me.
He pinned me down took my clothes off, kept pinning me down, he was so strong, kept forcing himself inside of me. I kept saying no. Time stood still, sped up. I jumped out of my body, watched the whole thing happening the way I used to when my mum was beating me. My voice seemed so quiet, so little: no big scream.
I thought he could kill me, he was so strong. I didn’t want him to beat me, I don’t know why I thought that, I just wanted this to end. To keep him calm. I had no money on me and I didn’t know where we were. I wanted to keep him calm so I could get out of there and get home. That’s all I kept thinking – keep him calm. Eventually he got up and went to the bathroom. I got dressed. He came back, laughed at me. ‘You’ve put all your clothes back on. You’re not going anywhere.’ He pinned me up against the wall and stared trying to take my trousers off. The trousers my mum had bought me for my new job interviews after university. He pulled my trousers down, and came all over my legs. ‘I spoilt your trousers,’ he laughed.
I was numb.
‘Let’s have a shower,’ he said. I went along dutifully. Just like my mum, who gave me baths after a beating; who beat me in the shower after a lesson. Like a child I let him wash me. We got dressed, and with his clothes on he didn’t look so scary. He just seemed small and weak, like my mum when she would rub cream into my bruises and say sorry.
We walked to a local pub. ‘I have to get back,’ I said ‘I need to get a cab to the station.’ ‘Soon,’ he said. I had no money on me, a dead phone. I felt trapped. We walked in. It was filled with skinheads. They all turned to look at us. I said, ‘Everyone is looking at me.’ He said, ‘Let’s give them something to really look at,’ and kissed me.
An old man came up to me, started taking to me about radio. Told me that radio was ruined by asian voices. “Nick” joined us and laughed at the man, egged him on, to mock him. ‘Are you staying for the weekend?’ the man asked. ‘Yes,’ said “Nick”. ‘No,’ I said at the same time.
I have to go.
“Nick” looked down. ‘I wanted you to stay,’ he said.
I have to go.
He called a cab and waited with me, got in the cab with me and walked me to the train doors. ‘I wanted to give you the best sex of your life,’ he said. ‘You did. It was fun,’ I said, and got on the train home. Polite girl.
I came home and had a shower, scrubbed myself, my body ached; I was spotting. At dinner my mother asked me what was wrong. I started crying couldn’t stop. I couldn’t swallow my food. I couldn’t tell her. I was so ashamed. She would only be angry with me.
‘Nothing. I’m just tired.’
He rang me all night, leaving drunken messages on my phone. I cried for hours. Fell asleep. A week later I spoke to him on the phone. ‘I said no. You didn’t stop.’ ‘I know,’ he said. ‘You were so full of yourself I wanted to teach you a lesson.’ A lesson. I put down the phone, and erased him from my mind. In nearly 20 years I never, ever thought about it. Four years ago, the memories came back. Now, when I am crying my soul out, I want to tell my mum. I want her to hug me and kiss me, hold me and tell me it’s okay, that I didn’t do anything wrong, that it wasn’t my fault, but I don’t know if that is what she will say. Will she blame me? Will I still be a bad muslim girl who brought shame on the family?
Is it better to stay silent?
But the silence feels like it’s killing me.
Bad muslim girl.