Thursday, February 03, 2011

Childhood Sexual Abuse and Thoughts on Healing

                                                                    Istanbul, 2010

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!

4.  If you can afford to, consult a counselor or therapist.

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) 


AlabasterMuslim said...

Asalaamu Alaikum sis,
Mashallah I have to first say Jazackallahu Khairn for posting your experience, I know its always a risk to put your most personal stories out on the net. Inshallah you will be blessed many times over, I do believe this will help many woman, and especially muslim woman since there is a lack of support for them from what I understand.

And I agree, that while some women heal differently, those tips were far from how things should be handled. If you tell a therapist a secret, they keep it. If you tell a trusted confident, they make sure it does not get around except to the right people....unless maybe the secret is told when they are much older perhaps?? like 30??

Alhamdullilah forgiving is an amazing thing, but we have the right NOT to. The punishment for rape/molestation is death, allahu akbar.

I just recently found out someone I love very very dearly was molested as a child from a family member (not mine), though they won't tell me who. I guess that might be better if they don't want anything happening because god knows I would go after that person.

Inshallah Allah Subhana Wa Ta'ala will grant you and your family the highest of Jannah, ameen.

Rukhpar Mor said...

"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."
I really like what you said above. I cringe when I hear people say, "think about others that have it worse than you" because it doesn't make me feel any better. SubhanAllah, I am happy that you are able to move on. I think there aren't enough Muslims that deal with this kind of stuff on a professional level, so as a community, we are still generally unaware of how to approach others that have been through these past experiences of rape, molestation, abuse, etc.

JazakAllah Khayr for sharing.

Safiyyah said...

I also wonder about the "don't think about it" attitude from some sisters from Arab and IndoPak culture. I remember when I first became a Muslim and I asked a sister from Dubai how the women there were able to tolerate the heat while being covered head to toe. She responded, "we don't think about it.". Is this a common attitude?

American Muslima Writer said...

Salam Saf,

Brava as always for takling the hard to write subjects.
And very well writ dear.

I like u was also hurt and never never never will I EVER be able to forget, as you said, no one can.
(Unless they were so young they didn't have memory function *vomit*)

As you said the steps u mentioned are only the begining.
I whispered in the dark to my childhood best frind what had happened to me and though i didn't make her promise to keep it secret she always did.
After talking to her it was easier to speak about it. I wound up talking to a police officer later but justice was never done.
Not for me or my Sister.
But once I became Muslim I attained that inner forgiveness you discussed. Those Bastards are gonna get what they deserve one way or another from Allah and I hope it will hurt them so bad, but I dont have to live in pain and anger for myself anymore. I'm able to talk as you can openly about it and be strong enough to help others stand up for themselves.

Thank you for brining this up Saf and hopefully other people will be able to face what happened to them and heal.

mezba said...

Even though other people have had worse experiences it still doesn't negate one's own personal experiences - I agree.

You are very brave to talk about your experience and Alhamdulillah you are now using it to help other people heal.

mezba said...

In desi culture there is a lot of 'saving face' going on. So even if there is a problem no one will deal with it.

It seems it's better to pretend everything is fine rather than making sure everything IS fine.

Rebekka @ Becky's Kaleidoscope said...

Thank you so much for being brave enough to stand up and speak out and sharing your experience.

You are so right, those tips are less than helpful. In some cases they could even be destroying to the healing process that needs to take place.

Anonymous said...

Jazakillahu khair, Safiyyah. Your post was thought provoking.

I think some day, you will perhaps better understand the four tips I suggested, in particular the one about "forgetting". Perhaps one day something will happen that will make you understand where I was coming from. I stick by what I said because I have witnessed this four-angeled strategy work wonders in my own life as well as those of others.

There are people I know personally, who were abused by a parent during their childhood, but after reverting to Islam, today, they hide what their parent (now dead) did to them to "cover them", and instead pray for the very same dead parent's forgiveness (for that abuse) and also rush forth in good deeds with the intention of benefiting the very same "abusive" parent in the grave. I know such people personally. Although I am not advocating that it is imperative that every victim of child abuse do this/feel this way, all I am saying is that such cases *do*, also, exist. The power of human forgiveness is great.

I am grateful to you for writing this post, and also for highlighting the perceived shortcomings of my article. I think this topic needed the alternative perspective.

Also, I would remind all readers that the advice of "remembering people who have it worse off than them" is not my personal advice. It is the advice of our Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), who forgave the killers of his blood relatives in his own life. It is the best advice anyone can ever receive - especially someone who has been horribly oppressed by other human beings. Someone who consciously follows this advice can experience miraculous, indescribable things in their heart. But if it doesn't work for you, please do not undermine the amazing healing power of this advice itself (again, which is not mine, but that of our Prophet [صلى الله عليه وسلم]).

May Allah reward you.

Safiyyah said...

As Salaamu Alaikum Sister Sadaffarooqi:

Thanks for responding to my post, sis! I'm honored that you visited my site :)

I DID say in my post:

"I know that each woman's healing process is different; some women may find Sister Sadaf's "remedies" helpful."

I was providing a different perspective, especially from my own experience. Knowing people who have dealt with being sexually abused and being sexually abused yourself are very different experiences, sis.

Therefore, I do not agree that my response was an attempt to "undermine the amazing power of this advice" which comes from Rasulallah, saw.

See, this is part of the problem. To beat survivors over the head with religion (and yes, that's how some of us take it).

1. if only we were more patient
2. one day we will understand
3. if only we were better Muslims and understood the sunnah better
4. other women can forget, why can't you?
5. Shush; cover the perpetrator, don't tell INSTEAD pray for them.
4. etc. etc.

If you read my post carefully, it reveals that healing for me was a process and I did credit Allaah t'ala and the therapy He provided for me with my healing.

And the Prophet (saw) did not forgive immediately! It was a process for him, too. He didn't forgive until after the conquest. If you are referring to a different hadith, please provide it.

Sis, victims have rights in our deen. No one can force us to forgo our rights. If we choose to, that's one thing, if that works for some people, Alhamdulillah for them.

This is what I wrote.

I say this sis with all due respect. And I welcome open dialogue on this subject. It is sorely needed.

I did say I congratulate you for writing your article. I just wanted to add more to it. Because just like you think my writing may undermine others, I likewise thing that yours has the ability of undermining the healing of others.

What you mentioned in your comment is valuable. That children sexually abused by a parent during childhood can aid their parent in the Hereafter by praying for their forgiveness and mercy. If a child, now adult, gets to a place in her healing where she can do this it is indeed a wonderful thing. We can ask for forgiveness for a parent because they are in the class of people who the living (children) can pray for to obtain forgiveness. But what about a non parent?

I had such an experience with my mother. My experiences with my mother are the subject of a different post. But when my mother was on her deathbed and unconsious, I talked to her and told her I forgave her. My therapist (because I was in such a place in my therapy) encouraged me to do this, for both me and for my mother. They say people can hear when in a coma. I held my mother's hand and told her I loved her and told her I forgave her. She died less than an hour after that.

So I know it can work.

Perhaps one of the "shortcomings" of your article in SISTERS was the space restraints? This topic is difficult to cover in two magazine pages.

And that's my whole point sis. It's not so simple.

I welcome your response and love you for the sake of Allaah t'ala!

Unknown said...

Asalaamu alaikum warahmatullah,

JazakAllahu khairan for your brave and unflinching sharing. I would be honoured if you would consider sharing your viewpoint with SISTERS readers, either as a letter to the Editor or an article in response to the one we published. Please contact me on if you are interested.

Na'ima B. Robert

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sis Na'ima: I'd love to write something. Let me get back to you in a week or so as I'm working on a few things right now. Thanks again!

Unknown said...

Asalaamu alaikum, jazakAllahu khairan. Please email me as soon as you are ready to discuss it. I would ideally like to publish it sooner rather than later, so that the issue is still fresh in readers' minds.
I look forward to hearing from you.

MovieGuruMaker said...

This where I think it is difficult for those who have not been through this awful experience. I would personally rather to have been murdered then suffer sexual abuse as a child or adult. I know of family members who have been sexually abused or raped in childhood and adulthood, but I could never imagine how awful it could be. I think peodophilia is the worst crime that anyone could commit. Victims should not be silent to protect a perpitrator, keeping the diginity of a fellow muslim or human being is not applicable when it comes to the sin of sexual abuse. It is one thing to not report someone for not praying or drinking alcohol etc, it is another entirely to hide a peodophile or rapist, especially one who could go and do it to someone else. I think that sexual abuse should be named and shamed, it will not go further under the radar because of this, it would just prevent this crime from happening to so many adults and children. I know of one community leader from a mosque in london who was convicted and named and shamed for crimes against young boys. I was sad to hear that this had happened in the first place, but happy that he at least got a prison sentence and hope his victims and their families can overcome this inshallah. This does need to be talked about much more then it is in general, but particularly in the muslim community.

MovieGuruMaker said...

sorry mistak-this is where I think that it is difficult for those who have not been through this to understand such experiences and voice opinions on it and how to cope.

Sarah said...

Salaam Saffiyah, I just came across your blog post and wanted to thank you and connect with you. As a survivor myself, I find your points to be spot on and I'm glad you spoke up in response to the advice offered in that article. I would love to share with you an article I recently published:
You and I share many of the same ideas, so I hope you will appreciate reading it. Thank you again for your blog post. I am very glad I came across it, even so many years later.

Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sarah: Just finished reading your article. Subhan'Allaah, it is SO awesome, and so are YOU and your family and friends. What a story you have. I encourage everyone here to go over to Sarah's link and read her story. Sarah, you inspire me to get back to my poor little blog I've been abandoning :) Hugs Sarah!