The hushed harassment inflicted on human soul within four-walls is about to become a courtroom campaign in the Valley.
Three best friends, Tasiya*, Benish* and Samreen* have come together over coffee after a long period of quarantine. Having each other’s back always, there’s a lightness that the buddies feel in one another’s presence every time they meet. They take unique pride in having confided in one another for many years of their friendship. While sipping coffee and laughing off the bitter and sweet of life, they trace their time together, and stumble over an ugly occurrence in the past. Reminiscing, the trio taps on their agonizing memories of sexual abuse.
It’s been nearly 20 years ever since the incident happened and 25-year-old Engineer Tasiya still gets petrified recalling the horror of harassment in her childhood years. Not knowing what abuse she was being subjected to in a tender age, Tasiya understood years later that she was a sexual abuse survivor.
Little Tasiya’s mother would accompany her to school in the morning and she would return by herself in the evening. A shopkeeper on her way to home would take her into his shop, without anyone noticing, for an abuse session.
She struggles for words while defining the vague yet fresh memory as if the incident happened yesterday. “I was just 7 or 8 years old when it happened for some period continuously,” she recalls. “My body would redden because he would grab me so hard and I would feel pain everywhere not even understanding what he was doing to my body parts. I feel pity for my little self-thinking of past. I would tell myself that the ‘Uncle’ was being affectionate towards me and my body felt sore because he was fat.”
Tasiya’s abuser is her neighbour who, she says, still possesses the “audacity” of jeeringly saying “Tasiya cha bedd gemitch” (Tasiya has grown up) every time she passes by his shop in her locality.
Subjected to sexual abuse as a child, she didn’t understand exactly what wrong was happening to her albeit Tasiya remembers getting nauseous every time she would leave the shop after being grabbed.
Such hushed cases of abuse have been keeping senior advocate Mohammad Altaf Khan on his toes since long now. To ensure some justice in these cases, the lawyer is now filing a writ in Jammu and Kashmir High Court, with respect to the implementation of POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act.
The writ proposes retrospective application in which sexually abused minors can seek justice from courts as adults. POCSO provides a legal framework for the protection of minors from various forms of sexual offences.
The writ of mandamus seeks for the survivors of child abuse to file FIR against the offenders any time after attaining the age of majority while making POCSO applicable in cases where the FIR is filed before the passing of the act in 2012.
Tasiya expresses her delight on the proposal of legal recourse by the advocate. However, she says that she won’t pick her own case of harassment with the court.
“I have wanted to share my traumatic story many times, but years of silencing are so internalized that I would contend myself more in mere reading and hearing about other girls’ experiences of abuse and finding respite in the fact that I wasn’t the only one who had a buried story in her heart,” she asserts.
“If only silence wasn’t so normal, speaking out wouldn’t appear some tall talk!”
Every now and then, she takes pauses and deep breathes, as if gasping for air to recall the horror.
Tasiya has undergone an array of emotions inside herself while coping with the scar of the incident on her mind. Defining her sexual abuse story, she takes leaps from guilt for herself to anger for the shopkeeper and pity for the world, in which people like her perpetrator hide with impunity.
She sighs into silence.
Holding her friend’s hands and not letting her sighs become sobs, Samreen expresses her fear inhibition in recalling her own tragic tale. She joins in to not let her friend break into tears by revealing her own account of abuse.
Twenty-five-year-old Samreen who works in Qatar and is in Kashmir these days shares that even 11 years after the incident, she often has nightmares of the day when her teacher sexually “assaulted” her at his tuition centre.
Samreen was a ninth-grader when her teacher would pass inappropriate comments on her ‘modern dressing’ and body in front of other students at the tuition centre. The day he called her up asking her to come to the tuition centre early, would change the way Samreen saw herself forever. “I had no idea about his evil intent,” she recounts with a sense of abhorrence. “I went there and saw nobody else in the room. He started touching my lips and body inappropriately and then groped me hard.”
Shell-shocked, 15-year-old Samreen had never imagined that her teacher still commanding a “respectable” position as a religious preacher in his community would abuse her. That day, she returned home, heartbroken and frustrated.
She had started to hate herself and her body as her abuser made sure to leave the onus of guilt on her dressing. “I remember vividly while forcing himself on me, he kept saying that I was responsible for what he was doing to me because of the way I dressed,” Samreen recounts. “Almost for all the years, I kept blaming myself that I was the reason for what had happened to me and I hated to look at myself in the mirror.”
Her harassment didn’t end even after the incident. Her abuser would call her up and ask for forgiveness, and then again say demeaning things to her. “He used to apologize one moment and justify his horrendous act the other by saying that he would marry me.”
After hearing of more such hushed-up incidents of abuse by the teacher, years after she managed to overcome the guilt he had etched on her mind. However, not having sought help from anyone, Samreen still finds it difficult to trust men in her life. She still fears that speaking out against her perpetrator would put the blame on her.
“He must be more than 40 years of age and I heard from my much younger cousin years later that he had abused her friend as well. I have never doubted a long list of his victims,” she says. “I believe many people who know him have an idea what all has transpired at his tuition centre, and yet nobody dares to question him including the girls who he has assaulted including me.”
In silence, such inflicted abuse ends up forcing the victims to seek clinical help. And the mental specialists like Dr Arif Maghribi have been counselling these survivors for long now.
Among other psychiatric disorders, the Srinagar-based psychiatrist says, sexual abuse survivors are likely to develop self-loathing and guilt. “Such tendencies leave a lasting impact on the victims’ minds and many times translate into self-harm and suicide,” he says.
Coping mechanism of the sexually abused varies in severity, the mental specialist informs. “Such an abuse can alter children’s mental growth and capacity,” he warns. “Some children’s performances get weak, many become fearful and lose all confidence, they find it hard to do any productive activities and function normally.”
In many cases some survivors also show extreme rage or become bullies themselves, Dr. Maghribi says. “They can resort to drugs eventually just in order to overcome the trauma ingrained.”
Living with that “trauma” not only affects the life of a person, but also alters his/her worldview forever.
The third and younger friend of the two girls, Benish (23) was brave enough to confront her abuser who is her elder cousin.
She was relatively much elder to Tasiya and Samreen when who she called ‘Bhaya ji’ (brother) held her from behind to molest her while she was at his home a few years ago.
“I pleaded him not to touch me and he wouldn’t listen,” she narrates her nightmare. “I managed to leave and entered the washroom, breathless and flustered. I wasn’t able to process what had happened to me.”
Recent engineering graduate, Benish had another emotional blow when the other cousin brother she had confided in for help, had asked her not to tell anyone else and forget what was done to her. Not being able to carry the burden in her heart she had gone to seek help from one of her college friends.
“My friend shared the whole incident with her teacher and all three of us went to my abuser cousin’s office. I let my emotions burst. Initially, he refused to accept his shame and later gave in. He felt on his knees and apologized,” she recalls.
Benish says she felt a relative respite after the confrontation. However, her cousin frequented her home in order to know, if she had shared the incident with her mother.
“He came to my room and begged for forgiveness and left threatening me that if he ever came to know something ‘odd’ about me, he wouldn’t spare me because I had ‘insulted’ my brother!”
Coordinator at IKS, Institute of Kashmir Studies, University of Kashmir, Dr Humaira Showkat who teaches Gender and Society in South Asia at the university, says that sexual abuse of girls in patriarchal societies is hushed up because of victim-blaming.
“Even if a sexually abused girl braves to speak out to her mother she will most likely be asked to keep quiet and endure,” the professor says. “It is because they predict future hurdles in the prospects of girls’ marriage, which is how silencing get institutionalized from family.”
Benish says that she strongly feels like exposing her cousin and people like him she knows of, but because of the lack of enough social support to victims of sexual abuse, she doesn’t dare.
Clinical Psychologist trained in trauma-focused therapies, Mir Maheen* has worked on Palestine and Iraq and has recently started working on the mental health needs of Kashmiri civilians.
Maheen believes that the onus of educating children about sexual abuse lies on the family. She stresses upon the role of social institutions in Kashmir in creating sustained awareness campaigns among parents and children on sex education. She has received scores of sexual abuse cases from the Valley.
“Sexual abuse is not gender-specific and in most cases, I have counselled, sexual assaults on boys go more unreported and unattended to,” Maheen says. “I have counselled scores of young men and women in Kashmir who in the course of therapies ended up revealing their stories of childhood sexual abuse. It is the responsibility of parents and elders to teach their kids, girls as well as boys, difference between good and bad touch.”
Dr Humaira Showkat of IKS also believes that in absence of enough discussion on child sexual abuse and redressal mechanisms in Kashmir, sexual abuse of minors causes severe alienation and identity crisis in them and many times leads to the perpetuation of unusual and toxic behaviours by the abuse survivors themselves.
Benish accepts that after her harassment, she has subconsciously cultivated a restraint in socializing with most of her cousins and extended family members. She doesn’t like attending family gatherings with her relatives now.
Dr Maghribi maintains that sexually-abused girls are more likely to fall into regression after abuse while finding it hard to trust people and socialize. He says that the conflict in Kashmir doubly increases the chances of persistent trauma in survivors.
“Behavioral disorders like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and many severe others can ensue if the victim-survivors are not counselled well in proper time,” Dr Maghribi says. “Such people are susceptible to an array of psychiatric ailments and the conflict renders their conditions much worse because they don’t get a healing environment even if they seek support and speak out.”
In order to encourage such people—victimized sexually as children—to speak up, Adv Khan who will be filing the writ on sexual violation of minors, says that it is in order to devise strategies to prevent sexual abuse among children in the valley that he is petitioning for.
“All the preventive measures should be taken like campaigning online, on social media, education on radio, TV debates etc to create awareness about the laws in place among people,” the lawyer says. “It is also in order to make the judicial process particularly viable for such psychologically and socially sensitive cases, that we are petitioning for.”
He proposes to provide special training to judges and prosecuting officers and lawyers for understanding the sensitivities of dealing with the survivors of sexual abuse.
The upcoming petition has only come as a ray of hope for the trio of Tasiya, Benish and Samreen. Maybe, now, they say, their buried story will finally resurrect and come to haunt their tormentors — who played with their innocence, and changed their lives forever.
(*Names of the sexual abuse survivors have been changed to protect their identity.)
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Sadaf is a Mass Communication graduate from the University of Kashmir. Chronicling events in narrative writing interests her.