Let me preface this piece by saying, this is a work in progress. I am a work in progress. Although I am not at the end of my journey, I feel compelled to share my story, if you’re willing to hear it.
I call myself a survivor. And what did I survive? When I was thirteen, and again when I was fifteen, I was sexually abused by my maternal uncle. Only a handful of people, including my husband, know this, but I suspect there are more Muslim girls carefully hiding this very same “dirty” secret than the Muslim-American community would like to believe.
This is not an empty assumption on my part; this wretched club has many members and I know because I am a counselor to Muslim men and women, the majority of whom have been sexually abused. For their sake and my own, I have decided to share my secret.
The first time it happened I was 13. It was the summer before 8th grade and I was an insecure, overweight young girl who had already begun developing and looked older than my age. My uncle, who always treated me as though I was his favorite from among his nieces and nephews, had recently moved to live and work in the U.S. while his family continued to reside in Jordan. That summer I began to spend more time with him, and it eventually led to a late night stay at his place. My male cousin and I were lounging on my uncle’s bed, watching television. He too lay with us, his arm casually draped over my shoulder. At some point after my cousin had drifted off to sleep, my uncle slid closer to me and lay his head down on my chest. I instantly tensed, my gut telling me this degree of intimacy was not right. My uncle then began to fondle me; he grabbed my hand and guided it down to touch his erection. At 13, I didn’t even know what exactly it was that he was forcing me to touch. I simply lay there, heart racing, but body paralyzed.
For years to come I would replay the events of that night in my head—as soon as my uncle touches me, I shove him away, screaming at him until he seems frightened and ashamed. I grab my cousin, who by now is wide awake from all the commotion, and storm out of the house, while my uncle sits alone on the bed thinking about what he tried to do and feeling humiliated and regretful. But these are fictional endings to this sordid tale, because at the age of 13, I was a frightened and confused child, not an assertive young woman capable of protecting herself.
Why then, I wonder, did my mother allow her teenaged daughter to spend so much alone with an uncle in his home, especially when his wife and children did not live with him? I still do not have an answer. I felt a surge of relief when an aunt arrived at my uncle’s house that night to drive us over to her place where my cousin and I would spend the remainder of the night. The route she chose took us past my parents’ home and as the familiar single family home slide across my passenger window, the same oppressive feeling of being trapped that I had felt a short while earlier in my uncle’s arms came upon me again. Perhaps the sensation of being suffocated had returned because it was at that moment I knew I would not confide in my mother about what happened that night. She and I had always had a tense relationship, only made more acrimonious now that I had become a teenager so I buried the secret in the recesses of my mind, hoping it would never resurface, but this was a seed that planted deep roots and bore rotten fruit.
Two years passed. And then it happened again. This time my family and I were visiting Jordan and one night my mother made a spur of the moment decision to spend the night at my uncle’s home. Because it was an impromptu sleepover, we didn’t have our pajamas, so I borrowed my aunt’s nightgown. When it came time to determine who would sleep in which bed, I somehow ended up in the master bedroom. Strangely enough, my aunt did not sleep in the same bed as my uncle and me. I didn’t resist the sleeping arrangement because my mother was sitting in the master bedroom, praying, and her presence gave me a sense of safety. I also agreed to sleep beside my uncle because a part of me wanted to prove to myself that what had happened two years ago would not take place again. I did not find the reassurance I was looking for. This time my uncle slipped his hand nonchalantly below the covers and in between the buttons of my gown, resting it on my breast. I still wonder how he had the audacity to pull this stunt knowing that my mother sat only a few feet away, but then that is what an abuser is: bold, cunning and arrogant.
For some time I simply continued to lay stiffly next to my uncle, unsure of what to do, but desperate to put as much distance between my abuser and myself. Eventually I sat up, changed and left the room, spending a tortured night tossing and turning on the living room sofa. The following morning, when my mother asked why I had run out of the bedroom so abruptly, the emotional dam burst and I confessed to her that my uncle had sexually abused me the night before—I didn’t disclose that this was the second episode of abuse. She paused for a moment and then brushed off my story, rationalizing it as an accident on my uncle’s part, who must have mistook me for his wife because I had climbed into bed wearing her nightgown. After that dismissal, I never again spoke of the abuse to my mother. Just as I had done two years earlier, I buried my ugly secret deep within, hoping that this time it would stay buried.
This is the first of two pieces that M.E. has written for Altmuslimah. She will share the second half of her story in the coming days.
Eman Aly is a social worker who lives with her husband in the Midwest.
Image source: Power to Change