Keep Our Girls Safe

15Jul09

News of three-year-old Sana’s death sparked disturbing memories for Naveen Naqvi.

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I’m not sure how old I was, but I figure I was in kindergarten then because I was learning how to count and write my ABCs.

I would pretend that the letter ‘a’ in the lower case was a high-heeled shoe like so: a. Hmm. Maybe you can’t see it, but I could, and I must confess that I still do. I guess my romance with the shoe began at an early age. And like a lot of children, I had problems with the ‘b’ and the ‘d’. Why, oh why, did they have to look so alike? I was convinced that it was only to confuse me.

Numbers were my least favourite. No surprises there. I’ve struggled with math all my life, and can scarcely keep my accounts without feeling dizzy or wanting to vomit. The number six was the hardest to master. That’s funny, given that my birthday falls on January 6, which I could remember perfectly well. But there would be my poor patient father counting 1-2-3-4-5-6-7… and there I’d be, staring up at him, happily parroting away, 1-2-3-4-5-7… Six, he would say. With a look of terror, I would repeat ’six’, but in continuity, the number would always slip. Ultimately, I would resort to tears and cry out, ‘Why does there have to be a six? It’s so unfair.’ The logic that would come to my father’s aid was that if there were no six, I would have no birthday. Now, that gave me room to pause.

During the 12 years that my family and I lived in Saudi Arabia, where I spent my formative years and was working hard to retain my alphabet and numbers, neighbours and work colleagues took the place of extended family. This is not uncommon in expatriate communities, where uncles and aunties replace mamoos (maternal uncles) and khaalas (maternal aunts).

One evening, and I remember it to be around dusk, Rabia Auntie’s husband (I can’t for the life of me recall his name) from two doors down our street offered to help me do my homework. My mother, being quite protective, had my older brother escort me over to their home. This was a most exciting adventure as Rabia Auntie allowed me to drink tea – that too doused with Carnation Condensed Milk – which was forbidden by my mother. Notebooks in hand, off I skipped down the street.

Rabia Auntie, who had no children of her own, covered me with kisses and went off to the kitchen, leaving me in the care of her husband. Uncle X pulled me up on his lap, took out my notebook, and started helping me with my homework. Now, I’m not sure when it happened, but it was an almost imperceptible change. It was something about how his arm cradled me, or a breath exhaled, or how his hands, in cartoon-like fashion, suddenly seemed much larger to me. I looked up at him in surprise, squirmed off his lap, and said that I was going home.

I never said a word to anyone, but it was around then that I began to dream of never-ending dark staircases from which I would fall, fall, fall to land with a thud on my bed. And that is only one manifestation of the effects of that episode from my childhood.

Later, much later, in high school, I mentioned it to girlfriends of mine and found that there was not one among them who had not had a similar experience. Most stayed silent about the uncomfortable and traumatising encounters; one who had spoken out had been told that it was she who was bad.

I recount this incident now because it came back to me when I read the story of three-year-old Sana, raped, beaten to death and dumped in a gutter by a couple of police constables. Not that there’s any comparison whatsoever between the two cases. It is just to say there are Sanas all over the world. Those who survive even minor acts of molestation or harassment (if there can be such a thing as ‘minor’ violations) are indelibly marked for the rest of their lives in innumerable ways. Speaking out now is just my way of saying that we have to find a way to keep our girls safe.

This post was first published on 15th July 2009 on dawn.com

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3 Responses to “Keep Our Girls Safe”

  1. This is such an AMAZING piece Naveen..very well written. I wonder why do we have “apna tamasha mat banao” thinking and when will it end? Women are subjected to harassment and violent and to add to their misery, they are told “don’t say anything else you will make fun of urself”…this is ridiculous! We should vent out…say out loudly and fight back because it’s not us doing the wrong..it’s others doing wrong to us!

  2. 2 sehrish

    Hi,
    What a well written piece! I pretty much had the same revelation with my friends last night, after all 5 of them one by one told each other about their secrets from their childhood, which they have never spoken to anyone ever before. I am seriously in disgust at the moment. If this happens in US or Canada I can accept it by saying they don’t have any Islamic knowledge. BUT in Pakistan, this kind of this is unbearable! BUT again, you don’t become a muslim or a Human just by being born in an Islamic state! We need to do something about it…… find a way to stop this from happening.

  3. 3 Sun

    I very much appreciated this piece. Just came across it while searching for pedophilia in Pakistan. Why was I researching this subject? I live in the United States, and a renowned Pakistani religious scholar has come to town to address the local mosque, attracting an audience of around 400 people per night. He lives in Rawalpindi, and is credited for his soft-spoken, flowery Urdu, and his great work and research in Quranic history. Before his arrival, a family visiting from abroad heard of his impending arrival, and mentioned that this same man was a known pedophile and had attempted to molest their son several years ago when he was staying at their home. The son, now a grown man, was with the family, and recounted the uncomfortable details. Instead of being disgusted and enraged at this man, majority of the folks who heard of this sympathized with the pedophile and instead doubted the victim. We were all cautioned to keep our mouths shut because it is a sin to repeat the ills of anyone (Geebath) and furthermore, it is a sin to accuse a good, religious man of such a heinous crime. I was dumbfounded. This was incredible. Then I wondered, shouldn’t there be a website, a group of some sort, where one can submit names, addresses and details about such encounters. I realize such a website is going to be vulnerable to misuse, but isn’t that a risk worth taking? I was a victim of pedophilia when I was a young child in Pakistan. I moved to the States at a young age, and have always been grateful for it. Most of my young adult life, I hated the thought of Pakistan, all because of a older, married cousin who got his kicks by touching young 6-year old girls. It wasn’t just that though. During a candid conversation with my sisters in my teens, we learned that a male tutor did the same thing to one of my sisters, which she always kept to herself. My eldest sister had a different older cousin, about twenty years her senior, do something similar to her. I figured: “there is something really wrong with a society where this type of abuse can be so rampant, and where young innocent girls are inclined to be ashamed of reporting it.” I had no desire to ever visit the country my parents loved so much, and did not want to have anything to do with all the family we had left behind. In fact, I was grateful that we were never able to afford trips back to Pakistan…I hated the name.

    Today, I am a professional woman, a devoted wife and mother. I have come to terms with those demons that haunted me, and have long loved the notion of Pakistan–the land of my birth that I wish I could contribute to somehow repairing. Maybe this is a way to contribute? If a website like the one I suggest existed, I wonder how many so-called civilized men in society would be deterred from acting on their temptations to harm young children? Pedphilia is a mental disease. It is not something an unmarried man partakes in due to sexual suppression (as many old-school Pakistanis usually surmise). The disorder is chronic–there is no cure–and the top psychologist in the US say the best they can do for a pedophile is to teach, through intense therapy, how to live in society without harming others–how to overcome their urges, their fantasies, their temptations.


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