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The silent lives of childhood sexual abuse survivors in America’s South Asian diaspora

  • Published at 06:11 pm January 10th, 2018
The silent lives of childhood sexual abuse survivors in America’s South Asian diaspora
Bina really believed Samiha was going to come home that night. It was a cold Wednesday evening in November 2016. Bina* had just gotten off the phone with her 23-year-old cousin, Samiha Khan, who assured her that she was on her way home. “I told her what I always tell her when she’s upset,” Bina said. “You live in a house full of people who love you, and we’re waiting for you. So, come home.” She was still suspicious. She had offered to call Samiha an Uber, but Samiha insisted she would take the subway. Instead, she threw herself in front of one. In the days following her death, Samiha’s best friend, Annie*, tried to make sense of what had happened. They had grown up together in the Bangladeshi community in Queens, New York, and attended the same school. They cooked and baked together during holidays. When Annie went off to college, Samiha visited her. On Annie’s birthday, Samiha threw her a surprise party. But before all of that, there was a part of Samiha’s life that would go on to haunt her over the years, leading to numerous suicide attempts. Beginning at age 8, Samiha was sexually abused by her father, Annie says. The abuse continued well into Samiha’s teenage years. Her mother knew, but discouraged Samiha from reporting it to the police, her cousin, Bina, says. Annie didn’t find out about it until their college years, when Samiha was no longer living with her parents. “When I came back from college for break for the first time, Samiha told me why she had moved out of her house,” Annie says. “That [her father] would molest her, abuse her, pull her hair. And then he would threaten to kill her if she said anything to anyone.”

Child sexual abuse in South Asian communities

Samiha’s Bangladeshi community in Queens is one of the country’s largest South Asian immigrant populations, which has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Between 2000 and 2010, the South Asian population became the fastest growing major ethnic group in the United States. Many migrate to the United States for better opportunities, often trading careers in prestigious fields — such as academia, medicine or other high-ranking posts — for blue collar jobs. And they do it all — leave their homes, learn the language, adjust to a new culture — for one reason: to secure a better future for their children. And yet, it is the children who suffer in silence. Nitasha Chaudhary Nagaraj, a research scientist at George Washington University, co-authored a 2016 report that surveyed South Asian adults in the United States. About 25 percent reported having experienced childhood sexual abuse. Nearly 22 percent of the victims grow up to have suicidal tendencies, which Nagaraj says is higher than in other ethnic communities. Such abuse often goes unreported due to cultural and familial stigma. Filial values are also very strong in South Asian cultures. Parents are authority figures, meant to be respected, not questioned.
Such abuse often goes unreported due to cultural and familial stigma
“Children are not seen as autonomous individuals in our culture. They’re seen as little people that you tell what to do,” says Yumnah Syed, a former youth empowerment advocate at Sakhi for South Asian Women, a non-profit organisation in New York. “In a way, we don’t value our children enough,” says Syed, who now works at Adelphi University’s Institute for Adolescent Trauma Treatment and Training.

Samiha’s struggle

In the years before her death, Samiha suffered much of her mental health struggles in silence. “She was very quiet in the sense that she would think very carefully before she spoke,” Bina says of her cousin. Samiha often did not share her feelings because she did not want to “burden” others. When she was 16, Samiha attempted her first suicide. She tried to overdose on Tylenol. Soon after, Samiha moved in with Bina’s family. “We would get on each others’ nerves, and then we would be ordering a bunch of junk food and watching movies together,” Bina recalls. On the day she took her life, Samiha failed her driving test. Perhaps it acted as a trigger — in addition to other struggles she had been facing, such as a fallout with her former boyfriend. She messaged him, saying she would “do something stupid.” He panicked and contacted Annie, who was unable to reach Samiha on the phone. She turned to Bina. That is when Bina called Samiha, and pleaded with her to come home. Instead, in a few hours, she would find herself at the hospital, giving the news to Samiha’s parents, who were one of the last to arrive. Samiha had died after jumping in front of the 7 train at a Jackson Heights subway stop. In her years living at Bina’s house, Samiha would miss her mother, who continued to live with her father in a different section of Queens. Samiha’s mother did not agree to an interview for this article. According to Bina, Samiha’s mother moved out of her husband’s house within a few days of her daughter’s death. She had plans to file for divorce, Bina says, and now acknowledges that what happened to her daughter was the result of her husband’s abuse. They don’t know where Samiha’s father has been since they last saw him the day after his daughter’s funeral, and he could not be reached for comment. But her realisation came too late. Samiha often felt that her mother had let her down. She was not supportive of Samiha when she learned about the abuse. She didn’t let Samiha go to the police either. Survivors in the South Asian American community often don’t report abuse by family members, as they worry that it might affect their immigration status, says Hiral Patel, a psychotherapist who until recently worked at Raksha, an organisation that works with survivors of sexual abuse in Atlanta’s South Asian community. In Samiha’s mother’s case, it was religion. Samiha’s family practices Islam. “She felt she had a religious duty as a wife to stay by him,” Bina says. Another reason for not reporting abuse is the protection of family honour, which is considered sacred. This often discourages children — or wives — from questioning authority figures. That fear is bigger when the perpetrator is the breadwinner of the family, as it was in Samiha’s case. “When you look at minority groups, there seems to be more focus on shame and maintaining traditional values. They don’t talk about sex, and this shame is more prominent in the South Asian community,” says Nagaraj, the research scientist at George Washington.

Speaking up

Zainab* remembers it as the summer she began wearing pajamas to bed. “I was 10, about to turn 11,” Zainab recalls. “I remember because it was right before my birthday.” Her grandfather was visiting from Pakistan, where Zainab’s parents are from. He was staying with her family in California. “My grandmother had just passed away,” she says. “Earlier, whenever they visited, they would sleep in my room. This time, he was alone, so he would sleep on a mattress on the floor — as he always did — in my room, and my parents never thought twice about it. Why would you?” One night, when they all had gone to sleep, her grandfather moved from the mattress to the bed, lifted her nightdress, and began kissing her. Summer is not the time to wear pajamas to sleep, but Zainab started wearing them anyway. She thought it would stop her grandfather from coming into her bed at night. Today, 16 years later, she can’t recall how long the abuse continued, except that it began in the summer and went on well into the school semester. Zainab didn’t know what to do. She let it go on because she felt that if she stopped him, he would go to her younger sisters, who were on the other side of the door. Protecting other family members is also one of the reasons why many children — and adults — don’t report these crimes, experts say. Others fear that speaking up will tear the family apart. “There is a lot of fear — for the child or the mother,” says Manisha Lance, who also works with the South Asian community as part of Raksha. “Lots of them are in domestic violence situations themselves, and there’s fear of what [the perpetrator] would do to other siblings if they’re reported.” But Zainab, who had been taught about “good touch” and “bad touch” in her progressive school in California, was able to speak up about her abuse a few weeks into it. She has a vivid memory of standing by a payphone, calling the hotline provided by her school, and saying to a stranger: “My grandfather kissed me, and I don’t know what to do.” “What?” replied the woman on the other end. This scared Zainab into thinking no one would believe her, so she hung up. She eventually made an appointment with the guidance counsellor at school and shared her story. The police were called. So were her parents.
She has a vivid memory of standing by a payphone, calling the hotline provided by her school, and saying to a stranger: “My grandfather kissed me, and I don’t know what to do
She doesn’t remember a lot from that day, except that they all told her it would be okay. She remembers the fear that permeated their home in the aftermath. Even though her parents were supportive of her, they were afraid of turning her grandfather in. It was late 2001, and 9/11 had perpetuated a culture of resentment against Muslims in America. Her grandfather was sent back to Pakistan, and her mother temporarily cut ties with him. Zainab was mandated to therapy. But in hindsight, Zainab doesn’t believe therapy initially worked for her. “My therapist was great, but she was a white person, and not someone I could relate to. I couldn’t trust her,” she says. “So there were times when it felt like it was too much,” she says about how she self-harmed for two years in her teens. Suicide ideation and other self-harm activities, such as cutting, are common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the two, according to Nagaraj’s study. “I tried so hard to somehow be normal, and I tried so hard to act like what happened to me didn’t happen to me, that I was okay,” Zainab says. “And it took me until just a few years ago to realize that it’s never not going to be part of me.”

Building relationships

Sanjana* remembers taking six showers that day. The night before, at a college party the weekend before Thanksgiving, when a drunk guy tried kissing her, Sanjana pushed him aside and ran out. Her friends were sympathetic, but they didn’t understand why she reacted the way she did. “I felt gross, but this happens to so many girls,” Sanjana, 20, says of the incident, which happened a year ago. “He didn’t even end up kissing me. He just came onto me really strong. But I just had a really strong reaction.” She tried to clean herself the next day, because she felt dirty. For the rest of the month, she didn’t really talk to her friends. She stayed in and studied by herself, all the while trying to figure out why she reacted the way she did. And then she remembered. When she was 6 years old, Sanjana’s maternal uncle abused her when he would babysit her. “It originally came across as him being playful,” she recalls. “Often we would be playing, and he would get really rough.” It happened for about a year, in her hometown in Georgia. As in most childhood sexual abuse cases, Sanjana did not know what was wrong — she just knew something did not feel right. Sanjana comes from a South Indian family, and she never told her parents about the abuse. Today, she suffers from severe depression and anxiety, some of which manifest into reactions in social settings, like the incident at the college party. “A lot of survivors often have trouble with social interactions and relationships as adults, with many ending up in abusive relationships,” says Nagaraj, the research scientist. Sanjana says she has always had trouble building relationships, especially with men. She recently tried dating in college but following their first few dates, she was overcome with anxiety about having to be physically intimate. “I started feeling the pressure that in relationships, people are physical and I didn’t know if I could participate in that,” Sanjana says. “Not because I didn’t like him or moral qualms,” she continued, “but little things like hand-holding or hugging — I couldn’t imagine being able to engage in it.” Now, more than a decade since she experienced her abuse, Sanjana acknowledges that it has affected her life in significant ways. “I would have mood swings, or long periods of not taking care of myself — like basic things such as brushing my teeth, or showering,” she recalls of her early teen years, when the symptoms of her anxiety and depression began to show. She would lock herself in her room, hiding from her parents. After all these years, she still cannot imagine telling them about either the abuse or the mental health issues it led to. “I don’t want to be responsible for a rift in [my mother’s] relationship with her family,” she says. “I think she values [her family] too much for me to interfere — because it would inevitably interfere with her relationship with him, whether or not she believed me. I don’t think it’s in my right to do that.” Patel, the psychotherapist, says this silence can be deadly. “When you don’t express experiencing sexual assault … nobody can help you,” she says. “No one knows what you’re going through, and you can suffer in silence. And [that] makes the depressive symptoms even worse.” ‘Why didn’t they do something when it happened?’ Struggles of women like Samiha, Zainab and Sanjana are invisible not only within their own communities, but within American society. And when mainstream media leave the stories of these women out of the larger narrative, smaller, local publications can get away with sensationalizing their struggles and perpetuating stigmas. Initially, only one reporter covered Samiha’s death. Mizanur Rahman works for Thikana, a Queens-based Bangladeshi publication. In his coverage, Rahman documented Samiha’s mental health struggles in a way that vilified her. After the report was published, he received phone calls from someone claiming to be a friend of Samiha’s. “She told me that Samiha’s father had sexually abused her, and that I should’ve written about that,” Rahman says. “But that was 15 years ago. I asked if they had filed any complaints with the police. I asked, ‘Why didn’t they do something when it happened?’” Rahman didn’t pursue the story, he says, because there was “no proof that it happened.” In an interview, he defended his portrayal of Samiha’s mental illness, saying that she was a “disobedient” child who stayed out late and would talk back to her parents. Rahman’s approach to telling Samiha’s story revealed something much deeper about the community’s failure to understand the context of mental health and the issue of childhood sexual abuse. He was ready to talk about Samiha’s mental health issues — without proper verification — but unwilling to pay attention to claims of her father’s sexual abuse, reflecting the reluctance in the greater South Asian community to vilify and blame the victims or, if the perpetrator is a family member, a heavier reluctance to talk about it at all.
Our goal is to eradicate gender and hate-based violence. So, we asked ourselves, if we don’t disclose this information, is it worse for Muslim women? Or is it better?” Abdelhamid says of their decision to publish the story. “Because, this should not be taboo. We should break away the stigma so that we can effectively organise or galvanise some sort of movement around this
“And that’s why people don’t come out,” says Syed, formerly of Sakhi. “There’s just a huge tendency within society to deny that people we admire could be capable of actually doing bad things,” she adds.

Samiha’s legacy

Without Samiha’s friends, her story would have disappeared quickly and quietly. Two days after her death, the International Muslim Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (IMWISE), a nonprofit based out of Queens, published a blog post titled, “Samiha’s Legacy.” It detailed the story behind Samiha’s depression and the years of sexual abuse she endured. One of the authors was Rana Abdelhamid, a friend of Samiha’s and the founder of IMWISE. She says they deliberated before publishing the post. “This was really hard to decide because we were sharing the story of someone who doesn’t have agency over the story,” recalls Abdelhamid. After considering these factors, they still went ahead. The blog piece included a screenshot of an Instagram post in which Samiha had written about her depression. It even included a selfie of her. Not everyone approved of it. Bina says she felt that it was outing Samiha as a victim of sexual abuse. “I very strongly personally believe that you don’t share the story of someone else’s sexual assault,” she says. “You try and convince them to share their story, but you don’t do it on their behalf, even when they’re dead.” Abdelhamid acknowledges this, but feels that it was important for the community to know the real story behind Samiha’s death. “Our goal is to eradicate gender and hate-based violence. So, we asked ourselves, if we don’t disclose this information, is it worse for Muslim women? Or is it better?” Abdelhamid says of their decision to publish the story. “Because, this should not be taboo. We should break away the stigma so that we can effectively organise or galvanise some sort of movement around this.” Despite the controversy surrounding this post, it helped keep the issue of Samiha’s death alive — at least for a little while. In December 2016, an article was published in Brown Girl Magazine that raised the issue of Samiha’s sexual abuse, the stigma and the silence, bringing into focus other taboos in the South Asian diaspora, such as homosexuality. It was one of the online magazine’s most-read articles that year, according to co-founder Trisha Sakhuja-Walia. “This hush-hush type mentality, ‘keep your problems in your home’ — that’s just how we grew up,” Sakhuja-Walia says. “We never spoke about what our parents yelled at us about, just even the simple things.” Despite a brief momentum on platforms such as IMWISE and Brown Girl Magazine, little change has taken place. A year since Samiha’s death, a Facebook group “Justice for Samiha Khan!” has had little activity or conversation. A lot has happened since. The “Gilmore Girls” reboot, which Bina and Samiha had planned to watch together, has been released. A new era of U.S. politics has begun. The seasons have come full circle. Amid all of this, Samiha’s death has slipped into silence, the same silence that contributed to her decision to end her life. For Bina, who shared an apartment with Samiha for six years, there is silence on the other side of the wall. They’ve cleared out Samiha’s room. Other than a few of her books, there’s little left. “I want people to know she tried,” Bina says. “It’s not like she didn’t seek treatment. She tried, and it didn’t work for her.” “It takes a lot of strength to keep trying, to re-enroll in school, to hold down a job when you’re struggling with mental illness,” Bina says. “It’s not easy. And she managed the best she could. I don’t want people to think she was weak. Because she wasn’t.” *Names have been changed or last name has been withheld. This story originally appeared in The Lily, a publication of The Washington Post