Shhhhh…..You’re Not Supposed to Talk About It

If you’ve gone through sexual trauma, for some folks like me, it’s hard to pinpoint the direct effects throughout the subsequent years of the event(s) occurring — and also very easy to pretend that it didn’t happen. It’s not till years later you may finally identify your triggers, sit down and reflect on your thoughts and habits and realize how much your history of sexual trauma has shaped much of how you act in regards to self-worth and value. The shame, guilt and self-loathe is very real.

For a long time throughout my teenage years, I pretended that it didn’t happen as a coping mechanism to not let it affect me — that a distant family member that I trusted as an older male figure repeatedly molested and raped me before the age of 10. Unfortunately, I had to see this person at family events throughout the years after it happened. My coping mechanism was pretending that I wasn’t raped to the point of believing myself since no one else knew anyway. By the time I reached high school, I had told 2–3 of my friends that were girls, and at the encouragement of one girl, I told my mother almost a decade later during my senior year of high school. Much to my surprise, she believed and supported me as much as she could within her capacity. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I decided to open up publicly to other women who were sharing their stories during an intimate women’s circle session hosted by the Sister Circle Collective. The second time I publicly mentioned my experience was 2 years ago during a retreat that focused on healing through somatic practices and included other people opening up about their various trauma. That second time, when I opened up, I broke down after years of pretending that I wasn’t affected and I even surprised myself. It wasn’t until 1.5 years ago that I finally considered therapy and decided to do the inner work of understanding how my trauma affected me.

While I acknowledge that these issues are cross-cultural, I am going to speak to my experiences as a Bangladeshi American in the Southeast Asian community. See, in my community, talks of sexuality, LGBTQ identities and sexual assault, especially by someone from the community, are considered taboo. Respectability politics play a huge role in experiences of rape, sexual assault and molestation being kept hush hush as a way to not bring shame down on the family and tarnish their reputation of being “respectable.” Any accounts of sexual assault experience may prompt the community to blame either the girl for being too promiscuous and/or the parents for misguiding their daughters. Usually, the responsibility of keeping silent primarily falls on the victim, often times a girl. Additionally, girls that dress culturally inappropriate, or is caught with a boy, or even accused of deviating from the socially constructed role of womanhood — are “asking for it.” This pervasive rhetoric of victim blaming as a way to uphold these misogynistic patriarchal systems of oppression perpetually protects men as it prevents women in the Southeast Asian community from speaking up about their experiences. As a result, many women suffer from severe cases of mental health problems due to keeping silent about their experiences out of fear of retaliation from their family and broader community. Reflecting on these broader systems of oppression, I understand now why I’ve kept silent all of those years; it was because of these culturally engrained reasons and the fear that I would be bringing shame down on myself, my family and my culture. Although I’ve thought about sharing my ordeal publicly before, I was afraid of the stigmas that I would be associated with as a survivor from the Southeast Asian community, especially within my own extended family. Truthfully, this is something that I still struggle with and the reasons why I have decided not to disclose the details of my experience.

The journey of claiming stories of sexual trauma and initiating the process for healing takes time. It has taken me almost 17 years to open up this publicly, and opening up on a massive social media platform is hard because my story isn’t going to be intimately shared in a safe space full of 20 people that I know but with thousands that I do not. My story also exposes me to criticism from people in my social network that know me and my family and may form their own opinions and judgment. However, seeing the overwhelming amount of solidarity from women across various cultures, identities, religion, etc. in speaking up about their experiences gives me the courage to do so for myself, too. I am hoping that by sharing my story, however limited, will encourage other women of Southeast Asian descent to speak up, because unless we do so, more and more women will continue to suffer silently.

Those from New York City, especially from Queens, may remember the ordeal of Samiha Khan a year ago whose silence regarding her sexual assault eventually led to her suicide. This article portrays an accurate depiction of her experiences and, moreover, succinctly discusses the broader problems that are evident in the Southeast Asian community in keeping silent on these topics.

To all of the women speaking up, being brave and sharing a piece of themselves to the world, however the extent, THANK YOU. In doing so, you’ve inspired me to also say #MeToo.

UPDATED POST: I wrote towards the end that I am encouraging other women of Southeast Asian descent to speak up but I am adding that the responsibility also falls on the brothers, fathers and husbands to take responsibility, too, of opening up dialogue on this topic. Women have done enough of the heavy lifting.

Note: #MeToo is a social media campaign that was originally started by Tarana Burke, who started, a website that supported and amplified the voices of survivors of sexual abuse. It was popularized by Alyssa Milano via Twitter in light of the Harvey Weinstein allegations of sexual assault against women. The request is for people to share their experiences of sexual assault in order to elucidate how massive this problem is with the statement: If all the people who have been sexually assaulted or harassed wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.