What’s the weight of shame and embarrassment? Does it, say, weigh more than joy and pride? Does it weigh more than a new-born baby’s head? Or sirloin? Would you use shame and embarrassment as an anchor to prevent a boat from drifting away to sea? Only she knew as she reluctantly walked into the therapist’s office in Doctor’s Plaza in Parklands, lugging all that shame and embarrassment with her, looking for someone, something to take the weight off of her so that all that would be left for her to carry would be the weight of her clothes and her bones. It was 6 am, mid this year, around June. Covid19 had finally gotten our attention by disrupting our rhythm of life and life out there was unraveling like a horror movie without an “End” button.
She took the space in: a coffee table, a sofa of sorts, another chair, drawn blind, and a very shaggy white rug in the middle of the room. It looked like the fur of an animal and she wondered if the therapist frequently combed it as she awaited the arrival of her next client. Small occasion cards were propped up, drawn by her children (she had three, she would learn later) and mementos that people keep on their desk for no reason at all. Her office looked playful, lively even, and minimalist, a far cry from the clutter in her own heart and body.
“Please,” the therapist gestured at one of the chairs as she stood there, not making a move. She was rocking a massive afro, shorts, a t-shirt and crocs, defying the morning chill. “You have a lovely body,” the therapist stood up, “you are pretty.” The therapist was a tall Muslim woman in full hijab. She was ready to be judged by this woman because in her words, ‘upright married Muslim women like this therapist tended to be the most judgmental, especially of women like her.” She should know; her mom and her aunts are pious Muslim women. Yet here she was, in shorts, and a t-shirt before this fully covered woman complimenting her beauty and her shape. “I was sure she was going to think I was a whore when I was done telling her the number of men I had slept with.”
This was the fifth therapist she was seeing. The first one was a man. He was judgemental. The second one, a woman, didn’t take her seriously. The third one, another woman, didn’t understand the ecosystem in which she came from and the nuances that came with that. She didn’t understand how she grew up living with an extended family that lived in one big house because she was born with a silver spoon in her kisser. She says, “And the last therapist was more fascinated with my job than she was with me as an individual.” She’s a senior government official. She has a bodyguard and a driver. She’s saluted at the entrances of buildings. Some rooms hush when she enters them. Her signature is enough to cause seismic shifts in certain quarters.
In the coming months of this year, she would come into this room and sit on the sofa and this lady would sit across from her, a huge notebook on her lap, occasionally scribbling with a glittery Swarovski pen, poking her gently with round-tipped questions. “I liked her because she came from my culture, she could relate to that family life, what a woman like me in that culture would experience. How religion plays a role in our socialisation and how sometimes it’s twisted and interpreted in ways that hurt us. She knows how important it is for people in my community to preserve the family name over the dignity of someone like me who was abused from when I was in class three, by an uncle, my mom’s brother who lived in the same house and nobody noticed and even when they did, they hushed it because, God forbid, the family be embarrassed.”
Over several months she told her the stories that resulted from her uncle’s abuse. She told her of her father leaving when she was very young, an abusive man to her mother.
On some days when she goes over and sits on that same chair, the chair of truth and vulnerability, she talks of those days. How her uncle whose room was one of the seven rooms in the big house that belonged to her grandmother started touching her and inserting his fingers in her when she was as young as eight years old. He would spend a lot of time with her because he – ten years her senior – an intelligent boy, would tutor her schoolwork. But “he would also beat me up when I didn’t perform well in class, whip me with a belt, slap me.” By the age of 10, he was making her watch pornography in order to learn how to perform cunnilingus. This went on for years. Nobody noticed because her mom was sickly and unwell and her grandma was always busy working. “I was under the supervision of this uncle who they thought was responsible but who was actually a monster.” She finished primary school and went into high school and it continued with him molesting her and then buying her expensive gifts, gold earrings, and giving her money. She would tell the therapist how normal it felt at some point, how natural it seemed because she didn’t know better. “He [uncle] told me that in some cultures it was natural for uncles to prepare their nieces for marriage by doing what he was doing. I didn’t know any better. I thought it was okay. I felt it was okay. I both hated and adored him.”
“There was a time I liked a boy in high school – in form three – and my uncle went to his family’s house and told the parents to keep away. This was also the same time I found out that my uncle, this same guy, was having an affair with my mom’s cousin, who was also married. It made sense because this woman really used to hate me when I was young, and I never understood why.”
People noticed how close they had become at some point and the rumours started. Her grandmother quickly picked up on it and “caused a massive fracas but nothing happened, there was no uproar. The general reaction was that I deserved it, I wasn’t covering up like a good Muslim girl, they said. I must have provoked this man, enticed him with my dressing. The matter was swept under the table lest it brought my family shame. Shame is a big thing in my community, it’s worse than rape.”
She grew to like the therapist. She was flexible and empathetic. The blinds of her office somehow always remained shut, creating an intimate space in the room where her demons swirled. On some days her boyfriend would be waiting in the car to pick her up from the therapist. There were days when she’d be feeling weary and deflated. On those days they’d drive back home in silence, her gazing out the window, head-bopping on the headrest like she’d just had a long night shift at work. Other times she’d be feeling lighter, floating on a cloud of confession and he’d pick up on her mood and ask, “What do you want to eat?” and they’d go to the market to squeeze tomatoes and smell dhanias and weigh pawpaws with their hands and they’d go back home and cook. This was the first normal relationship she’d had. The rest had been chaotic.
Her uncle eventually left; she tells the therapist. He left for Dubai, courtesy of a big engineering job. She was in university then. He stopped talking to her and she felt abandoned and alone. “I was missing this man who had abused me my whole life, wondering why he couldn’t call me. At the same time, my grandma wasn’t doing well so we ran into financial hardship. I recall writing to him begging for money. He ignored me.”
So, she started seeing men, married men with money, and sleeping around. “My therapist didn’t judge me, thankfully. I was surprised.” She says. “There is a whole section of my life where I was sleeping with men for money and feeling nothing about it. I would sleep around a lot. I would sleep with a man in the morning and a different one in the afternoon. I was numb.”
After nine years the uncle comes back home with the perfect Muslim woman and they have a wedding, a perfect wedding and she watches all this pretence and thinks, “You bastard, you ruined my life and now you are moving on with yours.” Then the uncle goes back to Dubai and she tells him that she needs help finding a job, so he organises for her to start a job in Dubai and in Dubai he starts pursuing her again but now she’s older and wiser and she can push back so she says no. Meanwhile, her life is spiraling out of control in Dubai; she’s drinking a hell lot and sleeping around a hell lot, and soon one of her kidneys caves in and she falls really sick, loses her job and she has to come back home after two years in Dubai.
There are days in the therapist’s room when she talks about all the wrong men she dated. She doesn’t mention them by name, just by their titles; engineers or a governor, or a businessman. She doesn’t honour them with names, she reduces them to pronouns, that way she stands apart from them even though they form a big part of her. “Every guy I dated then abused me, violent men who would beat me up and treat me like trash, this was because I was suffering from great abandonment trauma and I would overcompensate when I met a man, bending over backward to hold on to them, jumping from one abusive relationship to another because I was scared of people leaving.” She says it got so bad that, “this governor I was dating was so abusive that he would tell me that he was bored of our relationship and would ask me to bring my friend to come spice up the relationship. I was in this phase where I was trying to hold onto things.”
She wasn’t short on material things. The men were rich, they bought her things; cars, clothes, dinners, jewellery, but they also took a lot from her body, her mental health, her self-esteem, self-worth and dignity. She suffered two miscarriages by two different married men. In that room in Parklands she would speak of those miscarriages, those babies who didn’t make it, and her reproductive health problem, a hormone deficiency that stalled her pregnancies at eight months.
On some days she’d talk to the therapist easily, the memories coming out fast and thick with emotion, on other days she’d sit on the chair, feet beneath her, leaning back, shut down, and the therapist would ask her questions like; who do you want to forgive and this question would open a road that she hadn’t travelled for years. Or a question like, what childhood moments do you remember? Then she’d think of her dad and slamming doors, and the fear that lived within those walls. Or, do you want to get married? Do you sleep well? Can you forgive yourself? What colour do you relate to most today? What’s the most difficult thing to let go of? How are you feeling about the weather? What do you miss about travelling? Sometimes she’d be wearing revealing clothes that showed her body and other days clothes that concealed her, and she would ask her, why did you choose this dress today? What do you hate about your job? Then she’d have to tell her about her current boss, who promised her a job after she had worked on the 2017 campaign and she never got the job she was promised. How she thought she’d flirt with him, and play along with him in order to get that job, how she underestimated his cunning, his evil, how she enticed him to give her the job with a scandalous picture here, consent to a video there, just so that she would get that big job, and how even though she got the job the man eventually raped her in a hotel in Karen on 28th June 2019.
She talks about the rape while pacing about the therapist’s room, afraid that if she sat down for a second, the memories would bury her on the spot. And she’d be silently weeping, standing at the window describing the room she was raped in; grey white curtains, big wardrobes, a TV on the wall, a console, full-length mirror, a jacuzzi. She calls it a rich man’s bedroom in a quiet, discreet house/ guest house, in Karen. She crumbles on the floor and she cries, and the therapist joins her there and holds her as she lets it all out. She talks about the shame of it all. The shame of the act and the shame of the silence. “I never spoke about that rape. I’m angry at that. Only two people know of this, you are the third, and that made me angry. Angry that he could rape me, and I’d leave for official duty the next day, to Washington DC, as if it was normal. I lost respect for the office I work in, for the job, my self-confidence waned. He started harassing me soon after, being cruel at work. He told his peers that he had slept with me, not that he had raped me. I sought help, talked to the highest person you can imagine in the government apart from the president, but then nothing happens if you are a woman because it’s a men’s club in there, men believe only men. They say ‘but you used to date so and so, you are not a morally upright lady’ fine, I could be what you say I am but I don’t deserve to be harassed sexually or even raped for that matter. Let me choose my morality path but don’t use my choices to abuse me.”
There are days she talks about death robbing her of her grandmother this year, Covid19. She was the one person who never judged her, who stood by her, took her to school, a constant in her life. Death fills the room on those days, preceded by crazy anxiety and panic attacks. The meltdowns. She has been pouring herself into this room this year, the very dirty waters of her soul laid bare in order to purify it. She’s in a catch-22, where she can’t leave her job because she needs to earn an income. “I’m ashamed of the life I’ve led, the choices I’ve made. I feel great anger for not having said something when my uncle was harassing me, anger at nobody doing anything when it was raised, I feel shamed by what people thought of me, by what the people I work with think of me now, shame and embarrassment. I feel angry at my community for choosing to protect family reputation over the shame of confronting sexual abuse in families. I feel anger towards my uncle, who has moved on with his life, has a great career and a great family.”
Sometimes the sessions go on for hours. Sometimes the therapist stands up and holds her hand as she talks. At other times they sit there in long pockets of silence, letting thoughts take form. The therapist bought her a fluffy white bedside rug, ‘unfortunately that’s also turned a different colour now, because how do people keep white carpets white?”
Do you like yourself now? I asked her.
“I’m learning to be kinder to myself,” She said. “I’m learning to respect myself, to make better choices like not meeting people who abuse me. I’ve dated one man now, a great man, and I’ve not slept with anyone else for two years. I stopped drinking. I respect my body more now by dressing it better. My perception of beauty and elegance has changed. I’m learning to pray.”
Therapy is tough. There are days of demons and days of angels. There are days the room is chilled and it feels like you are bleeding on the carpet. There are days she feels defeated, days she is certain of her redemption. Then there are days she just cries and she’s angry and she leaves the room and she writes numerous long messages to him, telling him that she ruined her at least be a man and own that. He never replies. He’s with his family. Then there are days she feels angry at herself, for allowing these men to abuse her, to plunder her body and shred her dignity, for being weak.
It’s a complicated room, a complicated time of facing herself. “But one small step forward is a long important step.”