She is just ‘she’. She doesn’t want to be named. She wants me to erase a part of her person. Another part was preyed upon when she was barely seven. Today she is 28 and a mother of a baby girl. For over 20 years, she has lived in the trauma of being sexually abused by a close cousin.
As we sit down for a conversation, I find it difficult to break ice. The matter is emotionally sensitive and I am hesitant of making her relive those moments. She is also uncertain of opening up.
I wait patiently as she gathers her thoughts. “I was barely seven and we had shifted to a new place. Our extended family including my mother’s relatives lived in the same locality,” she pauses and then picks up the line again. “He was my mother’s first cousin.” She would go to his place because there were other kids in his family who she used to play with. “I would usually go there after school to play with them.” I ask her for more details about this cousin who, she says, was then in his mid-twenties when he started abusing her. “Theoretically he was my uncle, but I would call him bhaiya. He would give me that green five rupee note. ‘Wow, I own five rupees, I am rich among my toddler gang,’ I would say to myself and fancy all the colourful candies I could buy with those five rupees,” she recalls.
But her cousin was playing a different game offering her a bait to molest her. “He would tell me we will play and then he would take me to his room.” As she goes into the graphic details of those incidents, I find them too upsetting even for an adult to handle let alone a seven year-old girl. I want her to skip those details. I don’t want her to relive those traumatic moments. She takes a pause and then begins again, “As I grew up, I heard about these things, I read and I learnt. It was then I realized what he had been doing to me.” A long pause punctuates our conversation before she picks up the thread again. “I was traumatized. I wasn’t sure to what extent that devil had gone.”
I ask her when she understood that she had been sexually abused why she didn’t speak about it to her parents. “I never spoke about it to anyone. I was scared. I didn’t know how my parents would react to it.” Twenty one years later she has realized her fault. “I should have spoken to them. And there lies the fault. I regret it.”
Sexual abuse at a tender age left her so traumatized that when she got married, there was a prayer she would frequently make: O! Lord, bless me with a baby boy. I ask her if she wasn’t being discriminative against her own gender. “No. I didn’t want to have a daughter. I didn’t want another girl abused the way I was,” she reasons.
“He would give me a five-rupee note and tell me will play a game. Then he would take me to his room and molest me” – Victim
Social commentators and observers believe young girls being sexually abused by relatives is a widespread phenomenon in Kashmir. But, they feel, a variety of reasons come together because of which the problem isn’t openly discussed. Among these reasons is the victims’ and society’s culture of silence over such sensitive issues.
Farah Qayoom who teaches Sociology at Kashmir University told me this is mainly because of our social conditioning. “In our society we condition our girls in a way where we tell them talking too much isn’t a good trait. So they think if they will speak out about any misdeed they will be told to remain silent. That results in such injustices being perpetrated on them,” says Farah. She suggests that parents should act as a support system in such cases instead of “stigmatizing their children.”
Experts say in most cases these girls slip into depression. “It can lead to behavioral problems. Its aftermath can impact their social behavior as well as the society as a whole,” Farah explains.
The young mother I spoke to earlier agrees with Farah’s argument that girls are socially conditioned to not speak out against injustices. “I remember what our mothers would tell us, how they taught us moral values but they never told us how to raise our voice if someone forgets his morality and takes turns on us,” she says. But thankfully that has taught her a crucial lesson. “In no way will I repeat the same mistake with my daughter. I will make her aware of all these things that can happen to her. I will give her a voice.” She believes educating your girl-child about such dangers is the key to checking this problem. “I may not be with her all the time, but I will give her the education that helps her to tell the good from the evil.”
It came across to me as an over protective tactic of an abused mother. I went back to Farah to analyse this. “If a mother has suffered this abuse and is protective towards her daughter, it indicates that she has taken it positively which is really good,” explains Farah. She adds parents are the basic institution to inculcate values and awareness in a child. “Parents have a huge responsibility here to save their girls from being abused. They must open up little discussions with their girls over such matters so that they find it easy to talk to their parents.” Farah suggests schools can also play a vital role in creating awareness among girls against sexually-motivated advances towards them. While there is a high incidence of sexual mistreatment of girls by their close relatives, young boys are also subjected to abuse. Boys who have now grown into adulthood have stories of sexual exploitation, in some cases of sodomy, to share. Social commentators say the perpetrators usually take advantage of their proximity to the children because of their close family relationships. They add that the child’s innocence, fear and inability to protest become a contributing factor in their exploitation.
“I don’t want to recall it. This is just a dark place in my mind now. I am as helpless about it today as I was then” —Victim
Experts warn sexual assaults on children can hamper normal personality development and even result in serious issues as these children reach adulthood. They say in the absence of any counseling or “cathartic sessions”, such assaults remain embedded in the individual’s mind causing long-term mental trauma.
I had a feel of how intense this mental trauma can get, when I spoke to another girl who has just crossed 30s, is gainfully employed and single. “My family, relatives and friends often ask me why I am avoiding marriage as I have crossed the marriageable age in their eyes,” she says. And what are the reasons why she doesn’t want to get married, I prod her. She gives me an answer that is short in its detail but long in its back story. “I simply don’t want to get married. I hate men.”
Her story of sexual abuse goes back when she was eight. “I had this cousin who was seven years elder to me,” she begins as she pieces the story together. “Usually my parents would send me and my siblings to our uncle’s place after we were done with the final exams. There my cousin would touch me inappropriately. Even as a kid I could sense how bad that touch was.” The abuse kept growing and went on for years.
She would press for not staying at her uncle’s place for long. “I was terrified. I used to tell my uncle and aunt that I am missing my mom and I want to go back, but they would keep us there for several days because they loved us. But their son was up to something else which they didn’t know,” she shares. As she recollects those events, she tells me how hard it was to spend those days and nights at her uncle’s place. “I would sleep in terror that my cousin may come and do something to me.”
The ‘terror’ and the abuse continued for years. But as she grew into her teens, she would urge her parents to let her stay back home. “I would argue that I don’t want to go to my uncle’s place. I would skip all the family functions. But there were times when I had no choice and had to attend family gatherings. I was so terrified that I would literally stick to my mother.”
As she tried to fight this battle in her own way, she was also looking for some emotional healing. “I wanted to forget about it,” she tells me.
Obviously, that was the only salvation she could have as she suffered silently. But was that enough? If it was, why this aversion to marriage? These are questions I am tempted to ask her, but don’t.
As she goes on, I realize the worse was yet to come.
She had just turned 17. One afternoon she was home alone. Her parents had left for work and her siblings for their tuitions. “I was busy preparing for my exams when I heard someone knock the door. As I opened, it was the same guy. He tried to overpower me and drag me inside. I fought back and released myself from his clutches. I kicked him out, latched the door and broke down,” she recollects. The fight-off stopped further abuse but it could have been worse. Even I am frightened to think of that.
After such an assault and an attempt to outrage her modesty, I wanted to know if she spoke to her parents about it when they were home. “I was fearful. I didn’t know how to tell my parents about it and I think I never will.”
I understand that something very bad has happened to her that should not have, but I wonder why she is punishing herself by saying ‘no’ to marriage. “I hate all men because of him. I don’t trust them. They are all same,” she says as she tries to rationalize her all-out condemnation of men. Valid justification, or a deeply hurt psyche of a woman trying to comfort herself? That’s explained in part by what she adds as a rider to her statement. “If some stranger would have done this to me, I might have forgotten it. But I cannot forget that my own cousin ‘brother’ did it. I would treat him as a brother, but he treated me as something else.”
“I heard someone knock at the door. As I opened, it was the same guy. He tried to overpower me and drag me inside. I fought back and released myself from his clutches. I kicked him out, latched the door and broke down” —Victim
To know how sexual assaults impact upon a girl’s psyche, I met Dr. Zaid Wani, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Government Medical College, Srinagar. “It triggers distrust in them. They don’t trust anybody because in these cases trust is broken by someone whom you trust or have trusted at a certain point of time,” explains Dr Zaid. Although such cases are pretty common, hardly any girl opts for counseling from experts, says Dr Zaid. “Girls who are abused this way do not seek professional help because of the stigma attached to this abuse. We get patients usually with symptoms like irritability, anger, fear, dissociation, selfharming behavior, etc. But after a couple of counseling sessions, they open up and talk about these incidents that had happened some two years or four years or even 10 years ago,” Dr Zaid elaborates. He adds that they prefer to tell the victim’s mother about the abuse and the need to watch out. “We advise them to keep the girl away from the abuser which helps to check further exploitation.”
Although further abuse may be stopped by such shielding actions, the trauma is often hard to get over. Dr Zaid explains this in some detail. “Studies have shown that if someone is abused by a stranger, trauma is there but less severe. In case of girls abused by their relatives they suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.” He adds that in most cases such girls develop abnormal sexual behavior in later age. “These incidents lead to neurobiological changes where in the volume of some structures of the brain changes which is a lifelong thing.” Dr Zaid says such victims suffer from a condition that psychologists call ‘Affective Flattening’. In such a condition, he explains, they don’t feel any sort of emotion whether it’s happiness or any sad incident. “So it is very important to get proper counseling and treatment as such abuse results in psychological impact at multiple levels,” Dr Zaid suggests. He says if such abuse persists or goes too far, parents should report it to police. “These acts constitute pedophilia and are a crime.”
While pedophilia and sexual abuse by family insiders clearly constitute criminal acts, there are no specific laws to deal with these crimes. Hamza Yusuf, a lawyer at the Srinagar High Court, says if a victim files a case against her abuser, she has to follow the routine sections of RPC (Ranbir Penal code) and a normal trial will take place. He says the Indian parliament passed a law The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, in 2012 which covers such offences. But Hamza adds, “The Act is not applicable in Kashmir because of Article 370 and the state government has not brought in any substitute law to cover these crimes.”
Even in the absence of any specific laws, a complaint with the police becomes necessary to get a judicial trial going. But do people report it to the police? To find more I went over to meet Gulshan Akhtar, who heads the lone women’s police station in the Valley at Rambagh, Srinagar. She says although cases of sexual abuse by family insiders are prevalent in the society, hardly any are reported to police. “We get just two or three cases a year where girls report having been molested by someone from the family,” says Gulshan. She adds that even in those cases the victim girls put conditions. “When these girls come to me they tell me their identities should remain hidden and the case should not go to court. They want to settle it in the police station.” Gulshan says she faces peculiar problems in handling such cases. “It is not easy to judge such cases. You have to look into the circumstances and have to have evidence. You cannot take things at face value,” says Gulshan. She makes a motherly suggestion. “Girls who face such abuse should talk to family elders to sort out matters.”
Arguably an ideal suggestion, but probably that is the complicated part. All the girls who suffered this abuse I spoke to were reluctant to share it with their parents because they weren’t sure how their parents would react to it. They fear their parents may hold them responsible for inviting the abuse. Some girls even told me their parents may not trust them that a cousin brother is sexually abusing them. And then there are the social boundaries which
prevent the victims from reporting sexual abuse by relatives to their parents. I broach this issue of sexual abuse of young girls by relatives with 53 yearold Nayeema, a housewife and mother of two young daughters, to get a feel of how parents see the problem. She asks me in shock and surprise, “What? Are you serious that little girls are abused by close relatives?” As I explain to her that I have already met several victims, she tells me, “To be honest, I didn’t know such things can happen within our families. I have two young daughters and I have always told them they are as safe with their cousin brother as they are with their own brother.”
It is probably the trust our social conditioning teaches us to repose in relatives that makes parents, and even the victims, unsuspicious of the intentions of their close relations. Nayeema never spoke to her daughters about such matters though for a different reason. “In our society it is not considered appropriate to discuss such matters with young girls. We call it haya (modesty) and it has to be maintained.” She says even if you educate little girls about such dangers, it may not protect them every time. “A child is too innocent. She may not always understand the intention of touch or how she is being handled around.”
On the contrary, another parent Ghulam Muhammad Bhat believes parents, especially, mothers have a crucial role in protecting their little girls from these evil deeds. “Parents shouldn’t hesitate to talk about these things with their children,” says Bhat. He gives his personal example. “When my daughter was growing up, I told her mother to educate her about these things and make her understand good and bad,” he said. Bhat makes a valid observation alluding to issues that have cropped up because of the fracturing of the traditional joint family structure. He believes that this abuse doesn’t usually happen in joint families. “In joint families this mindset is not prevalent among boys because they don’t differentiate between their own sisters and cousin sisters. It’s only when they live in a separate family and get an impression that their cousin sister is not a family member and hence have other feelings towards her.”
“Girls who are abused this way do not seek professional help because of the stigma attached to this abuse. We get patients usually with symptoms like anger, fear, self harming behavior, etc. But after a couple of counseling sessions, they open up” – Dr Zaid, Psychiatrist
Since mores and values in the Kashmiri society are largely dictated by religion, I thought the religious angle becomes important to look at this issue. Qazi Imran, a religious scholar, shares his view about it and says the problem lies with the practices of the society. “Unfortunately we have set our moral values as per the cultural and societal norms not as per religion,” reasons Imran. “We often let our little girls to be around with their male cousins and we tell them that they are like their own brothers because this is our culture.” But, he explains, religion has set certain rules for all of us and we should abide by those norms. “In Islam even a real brother and sister after the age of 10 are not allowed to be together in the absence of their parents. So how could parents expect that their girls will be safe with the male cousins?” questions Imran. He believes that sexual abuse of young girls can be checked if parents follow what our religion says.
While parental vigilance and counseling, following religious norms, filing police reports and other measures may help to an extent, most girls, who have been victims of sexual abuse at some point of their life, are left torn between their personal trauma and the social exigency of moving on with their lives.
A 25-year-old shares her story with me about how difficult it is to keep life going after being through prolonged sexual abuse. This girl is soon-to-be married. Her abuse by her cousin started when she was 12. As I ask her for the details, she cringes, “I don’t want to recall it. This is just a dark place in my mind now.” Her trauma resides deep inside her psyche refusing to leave her. “I am as helpless about it today as I was then,” she tells me trying to relieve some of the pent-up distress that has piled up over the years.
A part of her extended family lives in rural Kashmir and her cousin who is 10 years elder to her, had come to stay with them in the city to continue his studies. “Both my parents work, so in a way they were pleased that there is someone at home to look after the kids,” says she. She has stopped using the word cousin for this relative. “I don’t prefer to call him cousin anymore. He is an abuser who has destroyed my capacity to trust anybody.” As she goes into the details, I realize how deeply these incidents are etched on her mind and why she finds it hard to let go. “I had a fight with him because he had written something on my notebook I didn’t like. In no time he grabbed me and shoved me to the floor. I tried to fight him off but he clutched me again and pinned me down.” The details of her abuse are too disturbing to be put in print. “I was a kid. Yet he repeatedly did it. I was wailing, but I had nobody to help me,” she says.
Shouldn’t she have spoken out about such an harrowing incident? “I chose not to speak about it because I thought that no one would believe me. I was scared I would be held responsible. I wasn’t sure if even my parents would believe me. I think that is what emboldened him.” She says he was always waiting for a chance to do it again. “I have spent so many cold afternoons in the compound of my home escaping him. I have lost count of how many times he did it before he left our home. I just remember that feeling, where I knew it was going to happen and when I was waiting for it to be over,” she recalls. The abuse left her deeply scarred. “For a very long time after it had stopped, I couldn’t stay alone with my father in the same room. I had become suspicious of every male in my family.”
She believes that it’s just a matter of opportunity for men. “I want to tell one thing to every girl: don’t trust anyone no matter how good you think they are, no matter how religious they seem,” she tells me almost in the tone of a must-follow advisory. And she knows it well because her abuser was “religious” and prayed five times a day.
The Back Story
Sexual abuse of any nature is a sensitive issue to deal with. It becomes even trickier to discuss when you have little girls being sexually abused and exploited by their relatives who take advantage of these girls’ innocence and easy ways of keeping them silent.
I must say it was difficult doing this assignment for a variety of reasons. I won’t say that it was hard to find these girls because I know there are lots of them out there. The hard part was getting them to open up. At times, I felt, am I rubbing salt into their wounds because no one would want to recall disturbing episodes of life? It was equally hard to put those shocking incidents into words. I had to take care of too many things. I had to maintain that line of decency. I preferred to skip the graphic part of the incidents. My prime concern was to awaken people to this evil side of the society, to which, we often either turn a blind eye or pretend it doesn’t exist or actually don’t know it is there.
When I spoke to different officials and other people for this story, it was extremely tough to begin the conversation and talk about the issue. I realized that it’s not easy to discuss and debate such issues in our society. But I also realized how many little Red Riding Hoods we can save from these big bad wolves by making the society aware of this problem. And by changing our approach where we always end up stigmatizing the sufferer, not the perpetrator. —Huda Ul Nisa