I Can’t Be a Good Girl Anymore

His hand slides up under the hem of my ruffled cotton dress.  We are waiting in the car for my aunt to come out of the store, and her husband’s hand goes from my skinny knee to the inside of my thigh.  He smiles and tells me I have very fair skin, and even though I am only six years old I feel something ache in my chest as I stare at his hand near the edge of my panties.  My mouth gets the same taste and feel as when I lick a 9 volt battery on a dare from my cousins.  I yank my leg away, huddling against the door and glaring at him until he coughs nervously and looks away.  For the rest of my life, I pretend that moment didn’t happen.  I hope he never gets near me again.  I tell no one.

***

I am 9, looking out my grandmother’s window.  Her Lahore home has huge windows, and I love leaning against the edge and looking down at the neighborhood as we while away the afternoon hours before tea time.  My grandmother is sitting on her daybed behind me, slowly cracking betelnuts with her sharp-edged steel nutcracker.  A man in a stained kurtha shalwar stops right in front of the house, and leans his bike against the tamarind tree framing the gates.  I look in curiosity as he works at something at his waist.  Soon his pants drop and something brown emerges, and I stare in horror as his hand holds it and he looks up at me.  He continues staring at me while holding his penis until my grandmother leans over me and sees him.  “Arrey, badmaash!” she screams in her scariest voice, and he is off like a bullet.  My grandmother never tells anyone what happened, and I follow her lead.

***

I am sitting on a plane seat next to a man who has told my mother that he will watch out for me on the long flight from Pakistan to New York.  We weren’t able to get seats together, and she is sitting with my younger sisters while my seat is a few aisles away.  I am about to fall asleep when he places a blanket over me.  His hand slides over my chest repeatedly, and though I am just 11-years-old, I know there is something very wrong with what he is doing.  For a month after we return home I think of that man, and I feel ill.  I never tell my mother, because I don’t want her to feel bad about asking me to sit next to him.

***

I am in my high school gym class, and all the other students have gone into the locker room to change.  My teacher has asked me to stay back, because he has already measured everyone else’s body fat, weight, and height.  He pinches the inside of my thigh and his hand slides up.  “Very nice,” he croaks, and I back away in disgust and shock.  I whirl around and disappear into the locker room before he can say anything else, and spend the rest of the semester avoiding all contact with him.  I’m so embarrassed I never tell anyone.

***

I am 16-years-old and visiting Karachi.  I am riding in a car with my cousin and suddenly a truck veers dangerously close to our car. I look up at the driver and he is grinning at me, kissing his lips with his hands and then waving his fingers at me.  “Just take any turn and get away from this creep!” I tell my cousin as the truck comes close to our car again.  We turn and he follows behind us for miles until we lose him.  I make my cousin promise never to tell anyone.  I don’t want the whole family to talk about this.

***

I am 18 and standing in a market in Karachi, looking at a stack of colorful glass bangles.  I am leaning in to say something to my aunt when a hand grabs my waist from behind.  Before I can even turn my head, he smashes his hand with painful force between my legs.  My knees buckle and I grab my aunt’s arm.  By the time I turn around, he is gone – a tall skinny man in a blue kurtha shalwaar, running away.  I feel so violated and humiliated that I refuse to tell my aunt and mother what happened.  The inside of my thigh is bruised for a week.

***

I am 21 and visiting a family friend’s house.  I am standing on their rooftop with their son.  He suddenly leans down, picks me up, and dangles me over the side of the roof, threatening to drop me three stories down unless I put my arms around him.  His hand digs into the side of my breast.  I threaten to punch him and he loosens his arm below my knees as he realizes I’m not impressed.  A dark look descends on his face and I can feel myself sliding away.  “I’m serious, I’m going to drop you!” he says, shaking me.  I finally latch onto him so he puts me down.  Once I am on solid ground I back away from him.  He is laughing.  Later his family sends a marriage proposal for me.  I reject the proposal, but I never explain to my parents the reason for my refusal.  I don’t want to cause problems between our families and suffer from the embarrassment of people finding out.

***

I am 23-years-old and a legal intern at a law firm.  Some of the male lawyers have invited me out to lunch, and over the course of the two hour lunch they engage in a drinking contest and get very drunk.  A senior partner sits next to me and leans over to tell me in detail how he had an affair with a “baby lawyer” many years ago, and the places they had sex.  All the other male lawyers guffaw in drunken laughter as I nervously twirl a straw in my glass of stale Diet Coke and wish this would end.  Later, word gets around about the lunch and I am forced to reassure everyone that it was all cool.  I need everyone to believe that, although I’m Muslim, young, and a woman, I’m not offended or threatened by what happened.

***

I am 26-years-old and a lawyer. One of the law firm‘s partners keeps calling me to his office to discuss cases he never actually involves me with. Every time I go in, he shows me pictures of Asian women on his computer.  Finally, one day he leans too close for comfort and starts talking about all the reasons he finds Asian women attractive. I leave, and I never answer his calls or emails again. I tell no one, out of fear that it will impact my reputation at the firm.

***

I am 30-years-old and making a presentation to a senior colleague.  Every time I lean forward to make a point, his eyes go to my breasts.  Every meeting I have with him ends up like this.  I try changing my outfits, I start wearing blazers with everything, but he ogles me.  He makes sexist remarks about other women, inquiring if the woman I just hired for my department is hot.  He tells me degrading stories about women and uses foul language.  I feel trapped and so disgusted with myself.  I tell no one, because people will not understand how someone as strong and outspoken as me, and in such a senior role, could stay in that situation.

***

It is the morning of November 8, 2016, and I am bursting with excitement.  A woman is about to become the most powerful human on earth.  When she wins, I will win.  Hillary Clinton has been my hero since childhood, and many of the steps I have taken as a young woman, and then a lawyer and a mom, have been guided by her example.  I may have suffered harassment and I may have been silenced, but, like Hillary, I have stayed focused on climbing to the top of my profession.  I haven’t become entangled in situations that would detract me from that path.

Hillary has shown me that when you just keep playing the game, and smiling through the insults, you can emerge victorious.  She has shown me that sometimes it’s ok to just let it go, so you can work towards a much greater victory over those who try to keep you down. She has convinced me, in the words of Michelle Obama, that “when they go low, we go high.”  Today, she will prove that this was a legitimate way for a woman to win, that this was just another way to the top.

When she wins, all my silences will be validated.

***

It is December 2016.  I am sitting on my sofa and watching with blurred eyes as CNN airs another segment about accused sex offender and chronic misogynist, President-elect Donald Trump.  Through my tears, his image fractures, and I see the face of the dozens of boys and men who have wronged me.  Their memories are crowding around me now, and I am finally letting myself feel the anger I ignored for three decades.  It feels like a hundred paper cuts burning at once.

I also feel guilty, like I have personally done something to bring about this awful result.  I am forced to reexamine my choices, and why, like Hillary, I have never spoken out for myself.  She has spent her career championing for the abused, the vulnerable, the dispossessed, yet as Candidate Clinton her personal sorrows were never on display.  We all knew she sustained a lifetime of abuse and harassment from all directions, attacks on everything from her character to her intelligence.  Still, every time she spoke about misogyny, harassment or discrimination, it was in the context of a story about someone she has helped or someone her opponent has targeted.  The story was never about her.

I have done the same thing, probably like millions of other women.  I have written for and lawyered on behalf of abused children and women, but I have never had the courage to confront these moments in my own life or tell anyone about them.

I convinced myself that my silence protected me, and I was able to channel my anger into positive change in the world.  In the face of Hillary’s defeat though, I wonder what this approach means for me and whether I would want my daughter or other young women to remain quiet.

I realize now that what we go through as girls and then as women, what Hillary went through during her career and her campaigns, is all connected.  Her loss has yanked me into a new reality, and it seems clear now that silence and forbearance were never the way to win.  I didn’t need to protect my mother, or aunt, or grandmother, or my employers.  I needed to protect myself, and I should have spoken out.  The world does not protect girls and women.  We need to do that for ourselves, and equip our daughters to do that.  We should stop believing that we can only be strong if we are never seen to be vulnerable or victimized.  Being subjected to oppression or harassment does not take away our power – silence does that.

This year is ending, and the four that loom before us will be difficult for me and for many women.  A man with a known history of demeaning and degrading women will be in the White House, surrounded by a Cabinet containing many known misogynists and Islamophobes.  I am giving myself the next few weeks to grieve.  But when 2017 arrives, I will be ready.  I will be different.  I won’t pretend anymore that what women and girls sustain every day without comment or complaint is normal, that our homes, schools, and businesses should continue silencing us.

I tried playing like a good girl, scandal-free, all my life.  But today I’m done.  I can’t be a good girl anymore.

Asiya Noor is a Pakistani American lawyer.  She wrote this piece under a pen name.

Image Credit.

3 Comments

  • Kareema Abdul-Khabir says:

    Devastating. Whether here or Lahore, something must be done about it.I definitely feel men should have to answer for their behavior. Women also need to support each other.

  • Saima says:

    Thank you for writing this. Everything you wrote resonated. <3

  • Susette says:

    The predatory behavior of pedophiles and sex deviants occurs, overwhelmingly so, in all socio-economic, religious and cultural strata. As mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, mentors, and girlfriends, we must teach our young girls early to never feel shamed by male predatory behavior, and to always, ALWAYS share it immediately with a trusted female. Sexual abuse stops by teaching this in the home, first. Thank you for finding your voice.

Leave a Reply