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Resilience from child sexual abuse trauma

By Tasnia Ahmed

Trigger Warning. I read the two words as I was scrolling through Instagram and paused to look at the post of a young girl who looked around my age. On November 2nd, 2016, 23 year-old Samiha Khan from Queens, New York ended her life by throwing herself in front of a 7 train at a Jackson Heights subway stop. I could not believe the words as I read them. That she was haunted by years of being sexually abused by her own father. Sick right? Well child sexual abuse almost always starts at the hands of someone close to the family, or family members themselves. Child sexual abuse is serious and heartbreaking because victims are young and don’t know how to seek help or share their story. Silence and lack of support is all too common when it comes to sexual violence but Samiha was also from a South Asian immigrant community. South Asian girls grew up being told never to say no, and to obey rather than to question or speak up. Being raised in a male-dominated community that neglects us, how can South Asian women be resilient and heal after facing this trauma?

I turned to the research to find the answers for my question. I discovered that a group of researchers[1] had previously studied how South Asian immigrant women learn to heal from sexual abuse trauma. Singh, Hays, Chung, and Watson were specifically interested in understanding how women described their strategies of resilience so they asked 13 South Asian immigrant women in the U.S. The women were all 22-45 year old child sexual abuse survivors who immigrated to the U.S. when they were between 6 and 16 years old. The researchers asked them questions about their child sexual abuse experience, and how they used their experiences to find healing on the path to resilience.

Based on the interviews, the authors identified subthemes that seemed to influence these women’s child sexual abuse experience: strict gender socialization, family image maintenance and the influence of ethnic identity. Being from a South Asian family myself, the one that stood out to me the most was family image maintenance. Let’s be honest, family image is supposed to be everything and whatever happens to you affects your entire family’s image.

The role of a girl in the South Asian family from a young age is to remain “pure” and virginal and if she doesn’t her family looks bad. Participant Deepa shared that she felt her being raped destroyed her family because it was during a time when they were interested in arranging a marriage for her. She felt that by losing her virginal status (by being raped, remember), she had let her family down and brought it upon herself. Participants also discussed feeling silenced as well, in order to maintain the family’s image. Their families didn’t want their communities to point fingers at them. In other words, they were instructed to “keep quiet” to save the family “reputation” and marriages if the offender himself is married.

The topic of sex, rape, and sexual child abuse is a taboo because it is covered up, hidden, and ignored. Young girls are coerced to quietly endure everything and continue to do so. But this research also held out some hope by sharing not only how some South Asian immigrant community practices are harmful, but also how the participants used their South Asian identities to heal from the trauma. They were socialized to be silent most of their lives including about the child sexual abuse experience right? Well these participants used the cultural command of silence as a way to heal.

While none of the participants described feeling positivity about being silenced about their abuse, they described transforming the demand into a positive coping strategy. For example, they were introvert and separated themselves from others. They used the silence to validate their own feelings about the abuse, which helped them understand it. I can say from personal experience that you learn a lot about groups and people by observing their interactions with others. You take on different approaches in life and learn that there are such things as boundaries and self-reliance. Self-reliance and self-love are factors that lead to your increased ability to heal.

While the South Asian community discouraged victims of child sexual abuse from speaking out about their experience, participants stated that it was important for them to decide when to use their voice. By separating yourself from others you learn what you really expect and want from people when you do join their table. Deciding when, where, and how to break the silence and use our voice to speak about the trauma is another step to healing.

Samiha Khan was neither the first nor the last victim of child sexual abuse, but her story created a flame and frustration among the South Asian youth just like her. As individuals started sharing their own stories, such as Instagram makeup artist and Youtuber Sharifa Easmin, it became a dialogue necessary to evoke change. Not just South Asian women, but a lot of women realized how many of us have gone through similar experiences. Reposting other’s stories, reaching out to one another and sending our support- it was like a sisterhood. Victims of child sexual abuse are learning more about themselves by sharing their stories. Past generations and the elder South Asian community may have dismissed their pain, but amongst each other you realize you are not alone.

[1] Singh, A. A., Hays, D. G., Barry Chung, Y., & Watson, L. (2010). South Asian Immigrant Women Who Have Survived Child Sexual Abuse: Resilience and Healing. Violence Against Women16(4), 444–458.

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