She must have been seven or eight old at the time. Every day, at precisely 7 pm, she would run downstairs, past her mother, as she would ask her to slow down, so not to fall - but who could stop a wild, crazy, excited seven year old from racing down the stairs, past the roses and flowers in the garden to open the gate for her teacher who would always greet her with the words "Assalamualiakum" (May peace be with you), and would race back (or pretend to do so) up the stairs into her home. The home where she was surrounded by family members who loved her, cared for her, and protected her.
Something strange began to happen. After teaching her, on occasions, he would ask her to come sit beside him. He would sometimes put his hand and rub her on her thigh. It's interesting how kids have such an amazing intuition for things that are out of the ordinary. The first time it happened, she knew it wasn't right but couldn't quite make sense of it; however, she was on radar; the following times he encouraged her to come closer, she would just treat it like a game and do whatever she needed to avoid the situation. One day though, caught off guard, she became a victim of sexual assault. From then on, she knew for a fact that what happened was just weird, uncomfortable and not right. And thankfully enough, that was the very last time. As a child though, it is these instances that become the scars inside of us as we grow older. For years, she would have nightmares about a teacher chasing her up the stairs and she would abruptly wak up, flustered, only to realize that thankfully, it was a nightmare.
It was the education system that taught her exactly what sexual assault meant. It was then, when she was ten years old, that she put the pieces together and came to terms with what had happened to her. At that moment, she promised herself that she would never let the horror she lived through be a part of anyone else's journey - especially those she loved. So she went home that day and explained to her baby brother, in very simple terms, the importance of his body and who has no right to touch it. And then she locked that memory away; or so she thought...
Years later, she was at a conference where a Chaplain was speaking about the issue of sexual abuse and assualt in the Muslim community; ironically enough, he talked about another young lady who came to see him, saying that she was sexually assaulted by her Quran teacher on a regular basis - and now, she had no idea how to make sense of what happened. The Chaplain (working in New York City), continued to share traumatizing stories of women and men - sexually assaulted at young ages, being raped, victimized - and having no support system within their communities or being able to talk about it.
Then, it all came rushing back to her - all that she had locked away in the back of her mind - but she knew that the only way out was to address it; so she sought help; she spoke to trusted friends, family and community member, who helped her make sense of it and come to terms with it. And yes, it hurt her like you won't even believe. But like the community member explained to her (a very respected one at that) - what happens to a wound when you first try to treat it? It stings and burns and hurts; but you have to bear the first bit of pain because that's the first step to healing it; then as you put the band-aid on and continue to treat it, it will heal - with time and patience. And indeed, she healed.
"Verily, along with every hardship there is relief; verily along with every hardship there is relied (i.e. there is one hardship with two reliefs)" [95:5-6]
The above are the true accounts of real people. And there are thousands upon thousands of these situations that women (and men- although we may not hear about it as often), as young children, experience. Yes, even today, in the year 2014. Just within last year, I've had conversations with two people about this issue in the community. And in the Muslim community, it's even tougher to address because it's such a taboo topic. Anything with the word "sex" in the Muslim community is synonymous with the idea of He-Who-Must-Not-be-Named (Harry Potter reference) - you can't utter it and if you do, everything and everyone comes to a standstill. But thankfully, I'm so grateful that we do have respected community elders who are talking about these issues - and not just the surface issue of sexual assault and how to address this topic, but also addressing the root causes such as the relationship between a husband and wife, the importance of respect, honour and dignity amongst both, and some of the more challenging topics such as porn addiction, domestic violence and yes, youth suicide - and yes, suicide, while not permissible in Islam, is also happening in our communities. The youth are struggling and don't know who to talk to or where to turn to for help.
We need to bring back voices in our communities. We need to bring back support systems so that we can regain that sense of pride in our identity, and be able to stand bold, confident and say, "Yes I'm Muslim, yes I pray 5 times a day, and even if you paid me a million dollars, I wouldn't have it any other way!"
But till we start talking about these issues, nothing will change. Even at a family level - remember, true change begins within ourselves and our homes; only then can we start to address these issues at a community level.
I sincerely hope and pray that God gives us the strength, courage, and wisdom to be true agents of change and help ourselves, our families, our communities, our nations, and our world to heal and become a better place for all. Ameen.