What Does a Survivor of Sexual Assault Look Like?

*Trigger Warning:  Rape/sexual assault*

At a time when #WhyIDidntReport is trending all over social media, more celebrities are coming forward with the hardest moments of their lives…and even more women of color. Somehow, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford morphed into that 16 year-old girl, scared to death in front of us. She was trembling, holding onto any moment of resilience she had in her, decades after the incident. She went back to that room, to that assault. Once again, her attacker had the control and here in front of the world, she refused to let him take any more of it from her.

It wasn’t just the Judiciary Committee reviewing her accusations. We looked at her non-verbals, saw her tears. We thought of every character assassination they said, but refused to believe someone would sacrifice it all to relive the hardest moment of their lives on national – no international – television, confused as to what the media says a rape survivor “looks like.”

We need to stop putting expectations on what a rape survivor should have done after the assault.

Rape isn’t something you get over, it’s not something you forget. It sits with you, creeps up out of nowhere when you least expect it. Smells, sounds, similar body shapes can trigger it. Some experience full out panic attacks years later, whilst others’ bodies slowly shut down, repressing the stress.

They tore her apart for details, women of color are all standing up and backing her up. An esteemed South Asian television newscaster, Connie Chung wrote to Dr. Ford: “I, too, was sexually assaulted—not 36 years ago but ~50 years ago. The exact date & year are fuzzy. But details of the event are vivid—forever seared in my memory.” You don’t forget the moment someone tries to break your spirit. My very first client told me, “I don’t remember the exact date I was raped, but I can never forget his smell.” I was so confused by it, and years later, and thousands of thousands of clients later, they all visualize every single part of the assault experience but when asked investigative questions, they do not know how to respond. This is a normal trauma response. In the hardest moment, where they thought their life was going to be taken from them, they are doing everything in their power to focus on forgetting the violation. The violation is a crucial memory, not details for paperwork-filling. 

We need to stop putting expectations on what a rape survivor should have done after the assault. Their story of the assault gets ripped apart before even getting to the part where she was attacked. Members of our community say, “this is why we have a mehrem…if she was with her mehrem, he wouldn’t have done it.”

But the truth behind mehrems is that men rape their wives, fathers and uncles rape their daughters, brothers and cousins hurt their sisters.

But the truth behind mehrems is that men rape their wives, fathers and uncles rape their daughters, brothers and cousins hurt their sisters. Coming forward when the rapist is within your family, within your community, where you see him everyday at school, at the masjid, at weddings, is a million times different than someone who is able to “disconnect” physically from them. The men see this as a form of power, and use many opportunities to continue to strike fear by getting close to their victim’s family and friends, by standing close to the victim “on accident,” watching their exit from buildings and following behind. Fear is how the perpetrator controls the survivor. Fear of their reputation being destroyed, fear of their family respect getting tarnished because it always finds a way to be the daughter’s fault for being alone with him, even if it is a mehrem.

We need to stop telling our women to never be alone without a mehrem and start telling our men one important thing: follow sunna, live a pure life, and do not rape women. Simple. 

Then all of a sudden amidst the fallout, the New York Times features Padma Lakshmi featured a well-respected Indian food chef, and ACLU’s Immigration and Women’s Rights Ambassador, with a title that shook the brown community, “I was Raped At 16, and I Kept Silent.” She wrote:

“You may want to know if I had been drinking on the night of my rape. It doesn’t matter, but I was not drunk. Maybe you will want to know what I was wearing or if I had been ambiguous about my desires. It still doesn’t matter, but I was wearing a long-sleeved, black Betsey Johnson maxi dress that revealed only my shoulders.”

She talked about her first experience with sexual violence at the hands of her stepfather, “When I was 7 years old, my stepfather’s relative touched me between my legs and put my hand on his erect penis. Shortly after I told my mother and stepfather, they sent me to India for a year to live with my grandparents.” She wasn’t believed – by her own mother – and we ask why girls cannot find the courage to speak out, because when they finally have the courage to speak out, they may not get heard. That pain hurts, as no one wants to be a rape survivor for the rest of their lives. Believe them. 

“The lesson was: If you speak up, you will be cast out” – Padma Lakshmi

For those reading this…it may have been hard for you to relive these feelings, but remember: it was not your fault and you didn’t deserve it. May Allah (SWT) give you strength.

Follow me on Instagram at @rabhi_