#MeToo and Child Sexual Abuse Survivors in the South Asian American Diaspora
Why didn’t child sexual abuse survivors in the South Asian diaspora claim #MeToo widely?
On Oct. 5, 2017, the New York Times published an explosive report about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual offences and systematic smothering of the victims’ voices. Ten days after the report which subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the #MeToo campaign—originally started by Tarana Burke and resurrected by actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet—spread across the world. In India, victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and physical violence raised their proverbial fists in solidarity. There were numerous stories of everyday harassment by men known or related to these brave women, as well as accounts of alleged harassment in academia, corporate world, and in the Mumbai film industry.
In Pakistan, the movement gained momentum after prominent celebrities shared their own stories of child sexual abuse in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl. And in Bangladesh, it brought out secrets that had gone unnoticed for far too long.
Vandita Morarka who works as a researcher for Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights (SAHR), a nonprofit working on justice for gender-based violence survivors in India, says #MeToo not only started a necessary dialog around issues of sexual harassment and abuse in India, it also empowered advocacy groups with an active repository of powerful stories to show the need and legitimacy of their work.
“At the micro level, I’ve seen #MeToo start conversations within families that would never discuss sexual assault otherwise,” Morarka says. “In schools and colleges, it led to students reaching out and discussing this more actively with their peers as well.”
In the South Asian diaspora in America, however, the enthusiasm to claim #MeToo has been limited.
Rani* says most survivors didn’t use #MeToo because they didn’t find enough support in the community to reassure them that the abuse wasn’t their fault.
She understands that sentiment because of her own story.
Growing up, 22-year-old Rani’s life out West was not so different from any other American millennial. She was an active student in elementary school and was part of the Homework Club, Girls on the Run Club, and Sports4Kids Club. She won awards from time to time and her parents, who had divorced when she was four, acknowledged her hard work.
Things changed when she entered 7th grade.
Rani was living with her mother and her second husband then. When her mother became pregnant, her stepfather started sexually abusing her. She was 12 at the time.
Rani couldn’t tell her mother because she was abused herself—at least verbally— by her husband and was financially dependent on him. He would also threaten Rani regularly.
“‘No one will marry you,’ and ‘no one wants a used girl’ were some of the things my stepdad would tell me,” Rani said.
But there was another fear that kept her quiet — fear of what her community would think of the situation.
“Opening up to the community is the biggest issue,” Rani said, “because there is no way of knowing who will be there to support you when you need it the most and that’s the hardest part of growing up [in an Indian-American community].”
Saima Husain, Deputy Director of California-based advocacy South Asian Network that challenges systems of oppression and inequality, says that for someone to speak or write about their abuse or experiences publicly, they have to acknowledge it at least to themselves or some trusted confidantes.
“I haven’t seen many people from the South Asian community claiming #MeToo, and there are a lot of young and progressive people on social media,” said Husain. Some of this caution on claiming the hashtag is because the abusers are often in the family, close to the family or belong to the same community as the survivors. It is also tangled up in the dual cultural identity of the 4.3 million strong South Asian diaspora and its status and place in the American fabric.
According to a 2015 study on family violence and child sexual abuse, “there is virtually no research on this highly stigmatised public health issue among the growing population of South Asians in the U.S.” Lack of such research and data stems from the perception that all Asian Americans are well-educated, high income, and well-regarded community. This “Model Minority” status actually worked as a deterrent for survivors to come out in greater numbers to claim #MeToo.
Fear of Backlash
South Asian diasporic communities in the US tend to be small and intimate where immigrants huddle together for cultural comfort. Familiar ecosystems and close-knit social circles are essential, especially for ageing first-generation immigrants. Before speaking out—online or in real life—victims of child sexual abuse have to weigh the fear that their whole family could be ostracized.
24-year-old Jannath Ahmed was born and raised in Queens, New York, in a Bangladeshi Muslim community. Her father started sexually abusing her when she was 11. Even as a child, Ahmed said, she knew her mother had no power because she was financially dependent on her father. So Ahmed kept silent, and the abuse continued for four years. In 2014, her elder sister got a job, and the dynamics changed. She told her sister about the abuse.
Ahmed and her sister filed a police report, but the charges didn’t stick because the statute of limitations had expired. Her father went back to Bangladesh eventually.
Her family that stayed back in the U.S., however, paid a steep price for standing up to the community.
“My mother’s friends cut her off completely,” Ahmed said. “My father made up stories about my sister and me. He said that we partied, that we were Americanized and went around with boys and that we were lying. My own family members were telling me that no one would want to marry into my family now.”
Ahmed, who has a thriving career in advertising now and lives with her mother, never used #MeToo. She says she’d rather speak about her experience to someone one-on-one than put it on social media where word can get to relatives or inquisitive community members.
Unlike Ahmed, her best friend—a victim of sexual abuse herself—remained quiet all her life and met a different fate.
Shame vs Individual’s Well-being
Jannath Ahmed and Samiha Khan knew each other since they were 11-years-old. When Ahmed told Khan about her abuse, Khan shared her own story.
Khan’s father was abusing her since she was 8-years-old. According to Ahmed, her friend was suffering from depression and had attempted to end her life more than once. Ahmed says she encouraged her to speak up several times but she didn’t have any support from her mother. Her abuse was kept a secret.
Samiha Khan jumped in front of a train and died in Nov. 2016. Even after her death, the focus of the community was on her mental fragility than the abuse that caused it.
“It wasn’t shared with any of the boys,” Jannath said. “Nobody reported it ever. And no one even thought to report it. It was more like a family problem than criminal behaviour…People care more about not bringing shame to the family than the well-being of a person.”
Saima Husain of South Asian Network noted that shame is a sentiment shared by all survivors of child sexual abuse regardless of their background.
“Shame and believing that it was their own fault, which is part of the abuse, is a reason why children wait for a long time to speak about the abuse,” Husain said.
Sharing their experience on social media platforms, Husain added, depends on how much pushback the survivor believes they will experience or how well they feel their story will be received which is also tied into their history of help-seeking and how people have responded to them in the past.
Anti-immigrant sentiments and underreporting of child sexual abuse
#MeToo movement’s tepid impact in the diaspora has another reason: Survivors often find themselves trapped between calling out the evils within the community and staying silent as the diaspora feels under siege in the current anti-immigrant political and social climate.
According to a recent report by Maryland-based South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a nonprofit that advocates for the civil rights of South Asians, there were 213 incidents of hate violence against those who identify or are perceived as South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Middle Eastern and Arabs in the year following the 2016 Presidential election.
Such anti-immigrant sentiment has collateral impact on victims of sexual assault and abuse. Saima Husain, who has been working with sexual assault victims for 20 years, says that even though there’s a current uptick in the anti-immigrant sentiment, victims have been hushed on this account for years—ever since 9/11.
“The community has this idea that there’s already a lot of negative perception and negative media coverage of the South Asian community and certain religious communities within the South Asian diaspora and that reporting child sexual abuse will add to it,” Husain said. “And so victims are blamed for bringing additional negative attention to the community.”
Even when they find the courage to talk about their abuse with authorities, an undercurrent of preconceived notions and even racism comes in the way.
“I had this experience of going to the police station to report about a [sexual assault] victim and there was an officer who said ‘Oh yeah, that happens a lot in your community’ as if gender-based violence happens only in South Asian communities,” Husain said.
Fears about immigration status and the legal system
Many first-generation immigrants, especially those who can’t afford attorneys, are unaware of the nuances of American law and the decision to report abuse poses more than one risk.
“There is a fear of legal repercussions that could affect their immigration status, especially if the survivor is from an already marginalized group. So in some ways, protecting the entire community does come in play,” said Sree Sinha, co-founder of South Asian Sexual Health Alliance, an online forum for South Asian youth focusing on stigmas around mental health, sexual health and sexual and gender identity.
With Department of Homeland Security monitoring social media of even green card holders and naturalized citizens as well as their relatives now, using #MeToo to talk about their stories felt even more perilous for some.
A Need for a Cultural Movement
Vandita Morarka says India seems to have reached a point where women are saying that they won’t stand for sexual violence and abuse anymore.
“I’ve seen women without support, financial or otherwise, take up this fight just as much as those with the support,” she added.
The South Asian diaspora, on the other hand, is adamant about portraying itself as a model minority. In her 2010 survey of college going South Asians in the U.S., Dr Shanta Nishi Kanukollu found that the more pride her respondents showed in their culture, the more they believed that family and community would take care of victims of child sexual abuse. Male respondents even displayed denial about the prevalence of such abuse in the diaspora.
“Our diaspora just doesn’t know how to respond to abuse survivors. There are a lot of calls for patience and prayers and they are told to ‘just get over it’ and that it wasn’t big a deal, and even that maybe the person really didn’t mean it,” Saima Husain says.
It’s perhaps for these reasons that #MeToo couldn’t find a solid foothold in the South Asian diaspora where the elders are firmly holding on to the cultural blindfolds of their native homelands, and the young are navigating the complex realities of being an American and a minority.
“If more people from the community were supporting each other, it would be different,” Ahmed said.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the survivor.
Sameera Khan is a journalist based in New York. Previously, she was a senior engagement fellow at ProPublica. She has a masters degree from Columbia Journalism School. She was also the social media editor for Guernica Magazine and communications fellow with The Bridgespan Group.