Advice for Muslim & South Asian Survivors
Student Survivor Toolkit: Download the PDF
Content warning: This firsthand account includes discussions or mentions of sexual assault, harassment, childhood sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and gaslighting. Read discretion is advised.
How I navigated conversations about sexual violence with my family and community.
By Sobia S., student survivor
Despite the prevalence of sexual assault in South Asian communities in the United States, many families still avoid having these important conversations. Instead of having open conversations about safety and responsibility, much of the onus of sexual assault prevention is placed on womxn.
Sexual assault is a topic that often can be swept under the rug in South Asian communities. While it is not spoken of very openly, sexual assault drives a lot of fears and practices in our community. Some of our families may instill values such as “young people should get married early,” or say things like “cover your chest with your dupatta” or “cover your head with your chador.” Some of us grow up hearing, “don’t go here late at night,” “don’t hang out with those people,” and “the devil is the third when two are alone.”
1. Our lack of language can be limiting and isolating.
As a community, we don’t have a lot of models for how to navigate conversations about sexual violence. Much of the language we have around sexual assault is suggestive, preemptive, and usually framed as the responsibility of the womxn so that she does not become a victim. This means that when sexual harassment or assault does occur, there isn’t a lot of language available to speak about what happened. It can be difficult to move the conversation from blaming the victim for supposedly not engaging in preemptive behaviors to addressing the assailant’s actions and their effects on the survivor.
“The reality of sexual assault is so unspoken in our community that my mom didn’t have a frame of reference for how to react.”
Additionally, many of our communities do not share common terms of usage (in Punjabi, Hindi, or Urdu) for female and male anatomy. The words that are commonly used for female and male anatomy are often considered forms of vulgar and crude profanity. This lack of language puts survivors in very difficult situations. If we cannot even discuss our body parts without being considered crude, how can we have thoughtful discussions about preventing and addressing sexual assault? How can we talk about being violated when we cannot name the parts of the body that were violated without using shameful language or when these body parts are not supposed to exist outside insults?
It is quite telling that many words or phrases used as insults discuss a man’s honor in relation to the womxn in his life (his sister/mother). There aren’t equivalent words or phrases for men as the concept of honor has always lain in the private parts (read: honor) of the female body.
But we survivors know a woman’s vagina is her own; the honor of another does not reside there.
Trigger warning: the following section describes childhood sexual abuse and may be triggering for some readers.
When I was a child, my uncle molested me. I knew something wasn’t right, and I eventually tried, as a six- or seven-year-old, to talk to my mother about it. I didn’t know what to say, where to start. He had touched a part of me that wasn’t supposed to exist, that was so actively ignored, and yet I had to make it exist to protect myself. Eventually, I told my mother that I had been touched “down there.”
As an adult now, and a marriage and family therapist trainee, I make sure my siblings teach their children the names of their respective genitalia to shed some of the shame of having a body and to arm them with language to protect themselves.
2. Understand that there are no models for this conversation.
As a young woman, my mom often told me stories about the 1947 Partition, about how women from every side were being brutally and violently raped, and how women carried poison with them so that they could kill themselves or their daughters rather than have their and their family’s honor be violated. Rape has always been used as a tactic of war for this very reason, because there is violence is “dishonoring” men in relation to the women of their family.
If, traditionally, death is preferable to being raped, how do you tell your family that you have been sexually assaulted? How do you tell them that you’re still alive and need them to be there for you? It’s incredibly difficult. Many family members don’t know how to react, how to make sense of this reality.
When I told my mom that my graduate advisor had sexually assaulted me, I could see her trying to process. I tried to give her time and space to do so. I could see her cycling through thoughts and questions: How did this happen? Why did you let this happen? Why didn’t you tell me? Who is he? Where is he? I’ll break his legs!
“These are the conversations that will cast light on shadows of shame and help make our experiences stories of strength for others in our community.”
While some of these questions were difficult and hurtful, I knew that the reality of sexual assault is so unspoken in our community that my mom didn’t have a frame of reference for how to react. Oftentimes, our family members don’t understand what survivors might need emotionally. They don’t understand that the assault is now a part of our daily reality, and we need to process it and understand how to live with it.
With time, my mother started checking in with me, asking me what I needed, how I was, and cooking for me. I had to learn to accept love from my mother in the way she knew how to communicate it: through food. While I was participating in the very difficult and emotionally taxing Title IX process, I got sent home with extra food from my mom almost every day.
3. Remember that not every family is the same.
My mom is a central figure in my community. She knows a lot of people, and a lot of people know her. She is the pinnacle of Muslimhood for many people in our ethnic enclave. Recently, one of her good friend’s daughters reached out to me. She had been sexually assaulted.
I spent time talking to this young woman about her situation and what support, if any, was available to her. I asked her if she felt comfortable getting some support from her mother. She said no, she didn’t. It was hard for her to hear and understand that while my mother’s initial reaction was not ideal, she had been able to accept me, love me, and support me while some mothers in our community, for a variety of reasons, might not be able to do so. For this reason, it’s so important to respect a survivor’s choice not to not talk to their family about being sexually assaulted as much as it’s important to support those who do want to talk to their families. The ugly truth is some families in our community may potentially disown a sexual assault survivor, victim blame, or even further hurt the survivor.
This is where families of choice (or chosen families) become so critical in our community. In the case of this young woman, I hoped to become part of her family of choice as she gathered safe people around her in her journey toward bringing her assailant to justice. As survivors, if we have the bandwidth to do so, we need to make ourselves available and open ourselves to other survivors. For this young woman, she shared that it was helpful to have someone in her corner who understood her ethnic background and at the same time didn’t immediately write off her entire culture or religion simply because of her parents’ inability to be supportive in this area—an area in which they had extreme social conditioning to act from a shame-based frame.
4. Consider having conversations about assault in general.
Part of the reason that conversations around sexual violence are so difficult in our communities is because they don’t happen, and then, when they need to happen, these conversations often occur in a crisis situation. Consider having conversations with family about the realities and prevalence of sexual assault and violence before someone (else) in your family needs support. Begin preemptively building models for appropriate responses.
One day, at my partner’s family’s home, there was a South Asian drama playing in the background that featured domestic and sexual violence being enacted upon one of the characters. I used that opportunity to ask their family why the character, a woman in this case, didn’t speak to anyone, what options were available to her, and where she could get support. When everyone agreed that there weren’t a lot of options for her, it opened the conversation up to one of our relatives who was also being domestically abused (probably also sexually abused). We talked about her options and why she might’ve felt like she had none. We talked about changes we would like to see, what systems we would like to see in place, and how we would like to be there for anyone when they face violence of any type. It was a small, but perceptive, cultural shift starting at home.
It is important to use the resources that already exist in our lives to foster these important discussions as a part of our everyday interactions. This normalizes these conversations and also helps take the onus off survivors.