CW: sexual assault
I still remember the first time my mother told me not to smile too much when taking a walk. Keep your head down, she used to tell me. You don’t want to attract negative attention. A mother of two daughters in a city known for its violence, she was afraid for us. So she gave us the same advice her mother had given her – advice passed down like a legacy from daughter to daughter.
It wasn’t just my mother that believed passivity was the key, we were told everyday by our teachers, our neighbours and the rest of society to be careful of the way we talk and the way we walk, and even the clothes we put on our bodies became public conversation.
Girls pulled out of school for showing their belly buttons and their collarbones, the same way I predict girls were scolded for showing their ankles in the eighteenth century. But the first time I was sexually assaulted I wasn’t wearing a short skirt and my belly button was covered.
I was in a school uniform – a polo shirt and khaki trousers, sitting in chemistry class when the boy I thought was my friend put his hand on my thigh in the middle of a lesson about the periodic table of elements.
I can still feel the weight of his hand pressing down on my thigh even now, and I remember the first time he did it I shot straight up. I could feel my palms getting sweaty and a lump in my throat. I don’t remember anything from that lesson except the racing thoughts in my head as I tried to figure out what to do. But I was frozen in my seat, my body feeling a thousand times heavier. I didn’t stop him and to this day, I still don’t understand why, except maybe I was afraid of the confrontation it would bring.
After all, I grew up in a culture that blamed the women and not the men. I was afraid that if I told my teacher he would ask me what I did to make him think I was interested in him, or why I didn’t stop him. I was afraid people would slut-shame me and talk about me behind my back. I was afraid. I was afraid. I was afraid enough that the next day when he put his hand on my thigh again, I didn’t say anything.
When I finally gathered my strength to push his hand away, he pushed it right back on. Every time I would push him off, he would push back until he squeezed my wrist so hard, I thought it might break.
The next time a man thought my body belonged to him, I knew I had to fight back harder than I had ever done before. I couldn’t afford to be scared anymore. So when I was 16 and a boy pushed himself onto and pinned me to the ground, I overpowered him and ran like I’d never run before.
I couldn’t believe that I had managed to get away at all and the truth is, there is a good chance I wouldn’t have been able to. There are many of us out there who couldn’t, many of us who have been broken by others, who have had to grieve the loss of ourselves.
We were taught that we had to be on the offense always, keys between our knuckles and knives in our pockets, pepper spray gripped tight between palms wearied and bruised – tired from fighting every time we walk outside our front doors to every time we enter back and have to check every closet, every window, every door just to feel safe in our own homes.
This is not for the men who have hurt me or hurt others, it is for all of the people out there who have ever felt scared when walking the streets alone, for every gentle soul crushed, for all of us who struggle to get out of bed in the morning haunted by the memories of the past or the possibility of the torment to come.
It is okay to not be okay. You have the right to be angry, you have the right to grieve what you have lost. And most importantly, what was done to you does not define who you are.
And to every young girl who has been told to keep their head down, I promise to fight for your freedom and your ability to express yourself and to be who you are. We are in this together, no matter what.
Image: Ece Kucuk