#MeToo: I am older, wiser and more determined than the little girl who was forced to hold an imam’s genitals – but not safer
The first time it happened, I was seven. An imam in our neighbourhood mosque held me, taking my hand, wrapping my fingers (they were still tiny) around his genitals, then massaging it. I was so small I did not know what it was that was in my hand. I had never seen it before and I certainly did not know what it felt like.
“Do you like it?” he asked again and again, until someone came to the room, and he quickly let go of me.
Later, I told my mom about this peculiar incident, and she wept for weeks and months over it but told me not to tell anyone. I was so small that I asked my mother why and what exactly was the imam asking me to do. And why would I like it? I asked my mother if I could tell my grandfather who I was really close to, she said,
“No, not even grandpa.”
The next time, not long after, it was another imam (it seemed as though the word was going around that I was an easy target–I was mostly a shy and quiet child). My mother could not leave me alone anywhere after that, I wasn't allowed to play outside, or be out of sight. I grew up, afraid and wary, but never protested, and most of the times never told a soul.
During my teens, however, it began again; by a teacher, my school bus driver, groping, fondling, grabbing, then later astonishingly a colleague, a friend, a number of friends, a doctor, a relative, many relatives, a stranger and then many strangers.
It was both the men I trusted and those whom I avoided. It was the men I admired, respected, and those I knew nothing about. It was the men I had crushes on. I felt like I was a magnet for trouble.
It wasn’t until my late teens that I saw another girl being harassed publicly in broad daylight. News flash: It wasn’t just me. But I saw that no one helped that girl.
I remember transforming from the timid girl who feared men, to an angry woman. I slapped men on the street – the grabbers, often even catcallers; I pinched men who slipped their fingers under the seat in public transports (yes, it is very common in Karachi’s buses); I threw pebbles (sometimes stones) on those who hoped to flee after the act. In fact, I became an expert on finding pebbles; I knew what size, type and weight to look for that would strike the target accurately from a distance. Especially if the harasser was on a bike, I knew how to quickly grab one and not miss my target.
Girls in my college used exam boards to cover their chests when they would walk outside the college, to curtail the chances of being harassed by men. I stayed alert, and took on men who would harass/hurt other girls. My late teens and early 20s passed away like this. My forehead still has a slight but stubborn frown, sustained from the creases from those young days.
Many family members and younger cousins made fun of me and called me names. Women who knew how I dealt with such men on the streets never wanted to go out to the bazaar with me; they felt embarrassed of my protests. They told me that it was not appropriate for girls to behave in such a manner and that I didn’t have to be like the men.
Once I beat up the son of a police officer, in front of other men in the neighbourhood, in Karachi. Soon the said police officer showed up at my house, with protocol, to see my father. A number of our neighbours and the elderly (it’s important to note that these were false accusations) accused me of having bad character. They said I was catcalling their son and that I should be locked in the house. This wasn’t the first time men spoke to my father about my ‘bad character’. It was outrageous for them that a women, a tiny girl, was telling them “no”!
My father, a simple man, was embarrassed and had no idea why complaints were being made if I wasn’t the culprit. Being a man, it wasn’t obvious to him what was obvious to my mother. In the conservative neighbourhood that we lived in, my father was often asked why he would let me out of the house in the first place.
So, I was punished for months. It affected my school life and hence the process of my heart being broken into pieces initiated. I realised, even though I behaved strongly, my boldness was no good. I was not stronger than all of them. Silly me, so little in my teens, I should have listened to all the girls who kept their mouths shut and told me to do the same.
When harassment came in my 20s and 30s, often in the field as a reporter or at university campuses (where I was always and by all means reminded I was too young to be a professor), it was by the men who did not go to my father anymore.
During my protests, men shunned me in other ways. They went behind my back and called me names – a Manhattan lawyer I refused to kiss, who I confronted me via an email, responded to me with threats, and I genuinely got scared of him. Whether they are men from the east or men from the west, the story is the same. If you tell a man off – white, brown or even an orange man – he will go after you. They would falsely accuse you of things just because it’s convenient. Society, both men and women, believe the man.
Men took credit for my work and sometimes even stole my work. They hit on me even when I told them I was dating someone else or even if they were married. They kept whispering in my editor’s ears that my work was horrible; an incident I was told by the perpetrator himself and when confronted, he said he did it “just like that”.
They did not pay me for the work I did for months, spread rumours about not only my character (because that wasn’t enough) but the quality and authenticity of my work just so they could nullify the need for my work.
It’s a strategy, you see. These men in my adult life were not young boys from another neighbourhood in Karachi anymore; these were educated, smart, influential grown men and they knew how to smear. They were my flirtatious bosses or the men who wanted to be bosses because they thought I was alone, and needy.
Men assume that being a woman by default, I ought to do favours to get ahead. Some men were my sources in the stories I were to write; powerful military men who wanted to ‘trade’ information with me, or socially weak men. In one instance, an old refugee man mistook my empathy as an invitation.
All these men tore away my spine. They took away so much of my energy, that when I say I am tired, I am not just lethargic tired; I am broken-into-pieces tired. My forehead burns with the warm racing blood as I type this.
Somewhere along the line, I completely lost my toughness that I had when I was a teenager. I became soft and mushy, unsure and nervous.
People who say that women engage in sexual relationships for career advancements simply want to get you busy in the boulderdash. Where are those women? Show me! Show me the women who exchange sexual favours to get ahead. The truth is, it is just something men like to tell each other when they harass, abuse and attack women. When these women stand up for themselves and tell them ‘no’, they go darting at them. The time we spend manoeuvring all these men, missing their darts is a difficult defence technique to achieve in this battle, especially when you are weak and under-resourced.
Last month, while I was on a work trip in Georgia, I was pushed to the wall by a man at a friend’s house. He assumed I would be open to it – mostly because in his mind, that’s what women traveling (working/driving/breathing) alone are looking for, to be forced against walls. What is evident, though, is that safe environments don’t become magically safer just because you are in your 30s and relatively wiser.
Last week, another incident occurred in Turkey. I was interviewing a man and his hands wandered from the keyboard to my chest. This is never going to stop.
Over the past few years, I realise how silenced I feel in my adult life, all the time. Words muzzle themselves. Conditioning! Discouragement! Accusations! Trauma! Brokenness! I have internalised my rage that turned it into my depression, affecting my health. I had become the quiet and timid girl one again – a child who couldn’t tell anyone about the abuse she faced, not even to those who were close to her. I wanted to put my energy into solutions (which I shall continue) and not in the physical fights. I wasn’t afraid of being the ‘magnet for trouble’ again. But today, if I end up being one for the sake of standing up against the wrong, so be it.
No matter how right you are, misogyny has no fact-checker. False accusations confuse society towards women, their character and their work. It belittles their fights. It belittles all our fights.
Yes, love and support will mend things but we have to fight alongside for our rights. This strenuous past week has been illuminating, because so many women, colleagues and friends shared their stories. I thank them all. Telling your story is an act of fighting too, and listening and believing these stories are part of the battle that we need to win. I am listening and letting others know that they are not alone in this fight.
To all the women who feel and face what I do, I am taking an oath today – I will not deny my right to fight, and I won’t deny your right to be heard. I will fight the abusers – sexual, psychological and racial – by listening and speaking. Most of the time, you can't understand everyone’s struggle out of the cave, but what’s the harm in trying? We need to empathise and speak for others as well.
As I learn in my 30s to love fiercely, I will also prepare myself to fight fiercely.
And dear men, if you care about us women, don’t forget to show your support. No amount of shyness or unpreparedness should burden your courage to help women who have suffered so deeply and for so long.
Author’s note: After writing this Facebook post, I received dozens of emails, messages, notes, stories, mostly men showing their support. It made me hopeful. I was not expecting to be noticed, because I am used to being ignored when I raise a sensitive issue like this one. Once, while I was working for a TV channel in Pakistan, I was blamed, shamed and attacked for reporting harassment of a senior colleague. It caused a long-lasting impact on my mental health, my courage and my career. It is a reality of every woman’s life; this will happen to any woman who utters a word.
Doubt comes before empathy. And your doubt in us could mean we would have to start our lives from scratch. We should be wise in how we react to these stories. Whether women speak out or not, their energies and freedoms are being consumed. It would be ideal to live in a more accepting society where these women can trust their instinct to speak out, when it is necessary for them to speak out.