WARNING! TRIGGER ALERT!
I was reading an article in the December 2010 issue of SISTERS magazine written by Sister Sadaf Farooqi entitled, Swept Under the Carpet. Sister Sadaf, a homeschooling mom of two "based" in Pakistan, was inspired to write on the topic of sexual abuse of children after hearing about the experiences of some of her close friends.
Like the topic of domestic violence, the topic of sexual abuse of children is difficult for a lot of Muslims to talk about. After all, we are members of a religion that highly values and respects women and children. Realistically though ... that's not always the case.
Statistics on sexual abuse among Muslim children are difficult to come by. Shame, privacy, and secrecy are just a few factors that contribute to the silence. In some Islaamic cultures, a young Muslim woman's future and marriage prospects are ruined as a result of childhood sexual abuse even though she is a victim and the abuse was not her fault. After all, Muslims value virginity.
I congratulate Sister Sadaf for writing this important article, but a few things about it made my blood boil.
If you are a reader of this site, you know that I often disclose that I was sexually abused as a little girl. I haven't written about it in specific detail, but I have shared the fact that I was abused with you.
I was sexually abused by five different male family members from around age 3 or so until about age 16 or so. And then there were those family members who were complicit in the abuse because it was right under their noses and they didn't want to know.
The damage done resulted in a very difficult life for me. I learned real early not to trust adults. I got the message loud and clear that adults would not help or protect me. I also learned not to trust men. I was well into my 40s before I knew how to have a healthy relationship with a man. Sexual intimacy for me involving taking risks that were terrifying. Alhamdulillah, I achieved healing from the help of Allaah t'ala and a wonderful therapist that He put in my life.
In my work as a substance abuse counselor and also in my chaplaincy work, I have counseled many women who have been sexually abused as children. (Not purposely leaving out little boys here - because they are abused, too, but for purposes of this writing, I am focusing on girls) As a result, I know a little bit about how to help women through the healing process. That's why I felt anger when I read the last part of Sister Sadaf's article.
At the end of her wonderful article about how to empower moms to protect their children, she gives "tips" for adults abused as children to try as a "remedy" when they find their past coming back to haunt them:
1. Talk to a trusted confidante who will keep it secret, perhaps a parent or spouse.
2. Strive to think about worse things that have happened to other people in this world, as this will develop gratitude for Allah in the heart, instead of rebellion and displeasure with His decree.
3. Make tremendous du'a to Allah to enable you to forget the incident and also consciously try to forgive the perpetrator. The power of positive thinking is amazing!
Okay **taking a deep breath**
First of all, before you leave me a bunch of livid comments, I know that each woman's healing process is different; some women may find Sister Sadaf's "remedies" helpful. But as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself, they provoked an extreme reaction in me. And I found them over simplistic.
1. The title of the sister's article suggests that sexual abuse is often the HUGE secret that ruins lives. So, why would I want to maintain the secrecy and protect the perpetrator after I've finally gotten up the courage to tell someone or once I'm ready to tell someone? Perhaps I am in the beginning of my healing, and sharing with someone is a start in the process, an exercise in trust, thereby the need to ask the person I tell to keep it a secret. And we all know that secrets like this can be spread like wildfire in the masjid much to our horror. But what if the perpetrator is still around? Worse yet, what if he is a family member? What if he has small children himself? Is secrecy wise in this case? At any rate, do I have to continue to live with the big secret?
2. Thinking about "worse" things that have happened to other people in the world does not increase my gratitude to Allaah t'ala in this case. There is nothing more painful for an abused person to endure than to have someone else "minimize" what happened to them by suggesting that they think of other people who have/had it worse. Your experience is valid. It was "worse" enough for you! Acknowledging what happened to you and feeling your emotions does not mean that you need more gratitude in your heart. Thinking about your abuse does not mean that you are ungrateful to Allaah t'ala. After all, most abused people have had a lot of experience thinking of others first before they think of themselves. That is one way in which a lot of us confuse boundaries.
Giving yourself permission to think about what has happened to you, and focusing on your healing is not rebellious and does not indicate "displeasure" with the decree of Allaah t'ala. If your past is "coming back to haunt" you, you may be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For that reason, the article should have suggested consulting a professional as the first "remedy." In a lot of western countries, especially in the United States, there are sometimes programs that a woman can take advantage of that utilize sliding fee scales. Do not let lack of financial resources keep you back from seeking help. There are also online help forums, and free help lines in the community that you can explore. You can also start an anonymous blog and you'll be amazed at the help you'll get from your Muslim sisters. Online anonymity is a gift. Ask for help. Pray for help. But, get help!
3. Sister Sadaf suggests that you "make tremendous du'a to Allaah to enable you to forget the incident ... sorry sis. It doesn't work this way. Having your innocence stolen is not something you will ever forget. Having your breasts squeezed and sucked, or if you have no breasts having your nipples rubbed and licked, your private parts probed, your mouth filled with someone's private parts, or your vagina brutally ripped open are experiences you do not forget. Having your uncle watch you undress or having your brother grind on you cannot be forgotten. Giving birth to your father's baby or aborting your teacher's baby ... well, you get the picture. You can forget your keys, or you can forget an appointment, but it is impossible to forget being sexually molested or raped when you were a child.
4. She also suggests that you, "consciously try to forgive the perpetrator" with the "power of positive thinking."
In the Qur'an, Allaah t'ala tells us,
"Let them pardon and forgive. Do you not love that Allaah should forgive you?" (24:22)
"And verily, whosoever shows patience and forgives, that would truly be from the things recommended by Allaah." (42:43)
On the surface, you may be thinking that this suggests that you should just "forgive and forget" as the saying goes and as the author of the article appears to be recommending.
But Islaam is also a religion of justice and this deen does not require you to be a doormat for criminals. Also, your perpetrator has obligation to make tauba, and part of repentance is making restitution to a victim. So, you are owed.
This is where the patience Allaah t'ala speaks of comes into play.
For you see, there are two kinds of forgiveness in the clinical sense.
a. You did something to me. I forgive you. It's okay. Let's just forget about it.
b. You did something to me. It's not okay. It's never going to be okay. I'm never going to forget about it. But, I'm going to move on. I'm not letting what you did have any more power over me. I'm not going to let you continue to abuse me by constantly letting the memory of what you did to me haunt me. I'm going to heal.
The second item (b) is also forgiveness. It's a type of commutation. Kind of like a pardon. The crime doesn't go away, but the sentence ends. Part of tauba is for the perpetrator to ask Allaah t'ala for forgiveness. But when a crime is committed against someone's human rights, the perpetrator must also seek the pardon of the one who he has wronged. If he does not or cannot get the forgiveness of his victim, Allaah t'ala decides between the two of them on the Judgment Day.
Don't get me wrong: Allaah t'ala is the Disposer of all affairs. That is part of Tawheed ar-Rooboobiyah.
If you have been abused, I am suggesting that perhaps once you move through the process of healing you may find yourself in a beautiful spiritual place! Some women don't totally heal, but some do!
When I started the work of sexual abuse therapy, my counselor told me something that gave me hope and courage to do the work I needed to do.
She told me that the grief, pain, anger, depression, and madness I was feeling then would get better. She said that I would never forget. But she promised that one day I would get to a place where my childhood had no power over me. She said it was like walking through fire. That it would get worse before it would get better. She promised me that God would see me through it if I asked Him to help me. She told me that I'd have to re-live the experience in order to feel all the emotions that I had been stuffing since childhood. She suggested that this was the language of letting go.
I held on to her promise.
And it worked for me! My childhood no longer haunts me. I can talk about what happened to me without emotionally collapsing. I can share without crying, but the absence of tears does not mean that I am emotionally numb like I once was. I no longer engage in self-destructive behavior to punish myself. I can write about it like I'm doing now. I can try to help other women.
Most of all, I have the gratitude for Allaah in my heart the the article's author spoke of.
"A woman's psyche may have found its way to the desert out of resonance, or because of past cruelties, or because she was not allowed a larger life above ground. So often a woman feels then that she lives in an empty place where there is maybe just one cactus with one brilliant red flower on it, and then in every direction, 500 miles of nothing. But for the woman who will go 501 miles, there is something more. A small brave house. An old one. She has been waiting for you. (Clarissa Pinkola Estes)