Farida Jivamala Ibrahim opens up about her personal experiences as a victim of sexual harassment and even sexual assault, in hopes that this will help other victims come forth to let their healing begin.
There are harrowing sexual experiences women everywhere go through but not many get told. Victims of sexual harassment usually bury their misery deep within, and the screams for help that come from them are only on the inside. Because they stay silent, no one knows the torments they struggle to deal with by themselves. And so no one can help in the critical healing of a wounded heart.
Farida Jivamala Ibrahim, a victim of sexual harassment down the years, had to deal with yet another sexual harasser a few months ago. For the first time, she writes openly about her experiences in the hope that other victims will know it is never their fault when they become the unwitting target of a sexual predator.
This is her story.
(i) Verbally Violated
I had never met him before. He was there as a guest at our function. Because of the pelting rain, we had delayed starting on time out of consideration for latecomers.
I had not heard him the first time he spoke those demeaning words, I was later told. So he had said them again, this time loud enough for me and the others around him to hear: “Farida, if you don’t start the movie promptly, I am going to strip you naked.”
Even the years of being a victim of harassment had not prepared me for this. Never before had I been confronted so publicly. His was a full frontal attack and without doubt he intended to hit, to hurt and to humiliate.
Yet I was able to say, just as loudly, “If you are going to talk like this, I’m going to send you out of this place. We do not entertain that kind of talk here.”
“I was only joking,” he replied. Others looked at me, perhaps waiting for a rebuttal. I had none to give. I walked away.
That night, I went home with the thought that the experience was over and done with. I was wrong.
When morning came, the full impact of what had happened hit me like a ton of bricks. I had won a verbal victory, yes, but I nevertheless felt violated, stripped, outraged and exposed.
And then the innermost part of me gave way and I cried and I cried. Everything that had been bottled up on the inside kept rising to the surface. Memory after memory resurrected itself from the hidden places in my heart. The past came back to haunt me and I spent an entire day in recollection and in tears…
(ii) Molested as a schoolgirl
There was I, again a schoolgirl, sitting at a window seat of a bus, my books on my lap. Something under my books began to stroke and stroke my thigh. I looked. It was the hand of the passenger next to me. And on his own lap was a little boy, possibly his son. I pushed away the hand with my books, anger rising within me but never spilling over into words. The hand came back. It stroked and it stroked. I stood up, knowing defeat, and stepped out into the aisle.
(iii) Traumatised in Turkey
I was on a beach in Turkey with a journalist friend. I headed up the slope to use the restaurant’s toilet facilities. These were out in the open, separated from the building proper.
The cubicles for women were in a straight row, back to back with the men’s. No one was around but I found every woman’s cubicle locked except for one. Upon entering it and closing the door, I saw the latch was missing. Desperation kept me inside.
A few minutes later, before I could step out, the door opened and a shirtless, big-sized Turkish man forced his way into the tiny cubicle and defiled me with his touch.
Instinctively, I elbowed him violently and pushed my way out. I hurried down and told Jenny what had happened. Then, sick at heart, I sat there saying nothing, doing nothing.
A furious Jenny marched into the restaurant alone and despite diners being there, questioned an all-male restaurant staff about the incident. Then she came back and hauled me up to identify the offender. I followed her miserably, wishing that I was a million miles away instead.
It turned out that the harasser was the restaurant cook. This time he had his shirt on. The restaurant manager, seemingly the only one who could converse in English, denied his cook had committed the despicable act. Jenny was livid and relentless in wanting to expose the lie, but then she became foul-mouthed when she got no cooperation from any of them. I tried to blot out the ugly scene before me, bewildered by my friend’s uncommon behaviour.
Finally, realising the futility of it all, we took a bus back to our hotel in the town centre. And there, in the privacy of our hotel room, I did what many a traumatised woman would do: I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.
Many stories like these lie buried in the hearts of other women, unspoken because society often points a finger back at them and causes them further humiliation and pain.
Victims of sexual harassment, and particularly of rape, can find themselves facing accusations that they should not have been where they were, that they were dressed improperly, that they were over friendly and should not have trusted their violators. And so hurting women choose to not speak out about their awful encounters.
The perpetrators – including a teenage cyclist asking for sexual favours, a middle-aged man finding exhilaration in exhibiting himself, an arrogant old harasser unable to accept that a woman’s “No” is her final answer – are therefore not held accountable for their misdeeds and are free to find yet another victim.
When will such acts ever come to an end? They never will, not if we women continue to live in silence, accept the depraved conduct and the blame, and hug the shame. They can end if we are no longer fearful to share our stories. They will end if we speak out so that the men who cause our suffering will come to know the assault goes deeper than the physical touch and the verbal insult – that it rips apart a woman’s sense of self.
A man’s willingness to take ownership of his transgression helps in the healing process for women who have been under attack. But it is not enough for full closure.
More crucial for our wellbeing is our willingness to forgive the abusers who trespassed on our private domain. Until forgiveness comes to rest in our wounded hearts, we victims of sexual harassment can never be free of the past.
Forgiveness frees us from the prison of debilitating emotions, closes the door on our false measures of ourselves and brings a kind of healing that enables us to become what we have always longed to be – powerful, liberated and gloriously alive.
LB: This article was first published on the Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia site.