I can see the scene as clearly as a snapshot. The yellow-gray Asian sky is weighted with its own peculiar blend of smells…thick exhaust fumes of heavy traffic, dust, cow-dung, spicy vegetable fritters in a stall beside the road. There is a deafening blast of bus horns, rickshaw motors, and cinema music. There is all the excitement of being in a gaggle of sixteen-year-old girls set loose on a rare, chaperoned, shopping trip in a city thirty miles away from our boarding school.
In the middle of this…in the middle of the bustle and noise, the heat and smells…just for an instant, everything stands still. An indelible event imprints itself in my mind. A girlfriend and I are just rounding a corner in the crowded marketplace, when out of nowhere a bicycle veers toward us and a man jeeringly reaches out and grabs my friend’s breast.
There are many memories that pile up one after another when I look at that snapshot. In a way I’m puzzled that I should even remember the event. It was so commonplace. It was such a non-event. Such things were an everyday part of what it meant to be white and female in that Islamic culture. So I wonder a bit why that photo has planted itself so fiercely in my mind. It’s almost as though it wants to wave itself in my face and insist, “Look at this! Look! Do you see what happened?”
So, I’m stopping now and looking at it. I’m looking at it individually, carefully…separate from all the other photos…the memories…the many happinesses large and small of foreign words and textures and tastes flowing through my blood, heaping my life with good, non-American, wonderfully “MK” thinkings and feelings. Yes, it was good to the bone to be an MK and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Having said that, I want to show you the one thing that makes this particular photo different from all the other sad and happy piles of MK snapshots. That one thing is the silence. That small abuse of my friend was…and has remained to this day …enshrouded in silence.
Unbelievably, I remember that the two of us actually walked on without even a break in our step. Our conversation continued with careful nonchalance. And never, ever…not in over twenty-five years to this day… has it been mentioned between us.
Maybe it is inaccurate to think of that moment as a single snapshot. Maybe I should place it in the context of a photo album. This is the album that stays at the bottom of the drawer and is never shown to anyone. It’s the album of shame…of what it can feel like to be white and Western and young and vulnerable and female in an Islamic context. It’s the album which stores the photos that didn’t turn out quite right…a photo for every stare, every rude gesture or comment, the touches, the pinches, the jostles and jeers. Photos distorted and smudged with lies about what it means to be a woman. Woman who, in truth, is so wonderfully God’s image-bearer…the delight of His eyes…the joy of His heart.
I’ve been thinking about that silence and how it actually says quite a lot. It speaks mutely of resignation and of denial. It’s a silence that, when asked, shrugs its shoulders and ducks its head and kicks at the dirt. So let’s push at it a bit, let’s cajole it into talking. What is it saying by saying nothing?
Clearly, the silence is voicing profound feelings of shame. “There is something wrong with being a woman. There is something wrong with being me. Why won’t these men leave me alone? There must be something bad about me that attracts this kind of attention, but I’m too ashamed to talk to anyone about it.”
Maybe the silence is also saying, “So what! This happens so often it isn’t even worth talking about. It’s a non-event. So, I got grabbed again. I’m used to it and it’s no big deal. There’s no point in making a fuss about nothing.”
Or perhaps it is saying fatalistically, “What’s the point of talking when there’s nothing that can be done? No matter what I say or do nothing will change. God called my parents to an Islamic country. Harassment of women is just part of the cultural package. What can’t be cured must be endured.”
I think sometimes the silence might be saying, “If I say something, I’m likely to be the one blamed for what happened. Talking will just make things worse. Adults will ask, ‘Why didn’t you wear more appropriate clothes? …Why did you make eye contact?…Why didn’t you watch where you were going?…Why can’t you behave when you go out? What’s wrong with you anyway?”
Or maybe the silence is a simple statement of fact. “I won’t be heard so why talk? There are so many other more important things going on. My parents are so busy, so stressed, so exhausted. They’re in culture shock, in language school, overwhelmed with ministry demands. Why should I bother them with one more thing?”
So much being said in the silence. Do you hear the messages more clearly now? Maybe it’s time for those of us engaged in raising young girls in Islamic contexts to think about how the cultural values might be influencing them. Maybe it’s time to pull the photos out and examine them in the light. What are the long-term effects of unremitting disparagement and sexual harassment on girls during their developing years? What are some of the distorted core beliefs that shape the silence? As we live and work in Islamic cultures, what can we do to raise our daughters radiantly, in grace, and beauty, and truth?
The very first thing we need to do is to acknowledge that the silence does, in fact, exist. We need to expose the lies and wrong assumptions behind the silence, countering them with truth. Here are a few of those lies:
- “There is something wrong with being a woman. There is something wrong with me.”
The experience of shame is not unusual for girls growing up in traditional Islamic cultures. Even though a child may be nurtured in a loving, Christian home, she lives in a setting in which she is constantly barraged with ungodly messages about her female identity. This happens at two levels. First it happens at the level of what it means in general to be female. In traditional Islamic societies women are viewed as intrinsically inferior beings. The sacred written traditions handed down through Islam (the “Hadith”) present women as spiritually, physically, intellectually and morally deficient. They are inherently unstable, weak-willed, incompetent and illogical. Their physical attractions are an irresistible and dangerous entrapment for men who have no choice but to respond according to their primal urges. When directly and indirectly communicated during their developmental years, these messages about womanhood can be profoundly confusing to MK girls. They aren’t blind. They see women walking behind men. They see them veiled and hidden behind walls. They may notice that their Muslim girlfriends are the last in their families to get food at mealtimes, and the last to receive medical help. Sometimes they may even see them being physically beaten and abused. When a baby girl is born they often see a reaction of silence and disappointment. Deep down they begin to suspect that there is something terribly wrong with being a girl.
To make things even more complicated, these MK girls also experience negative input regarding their Western identity. Throughout the Islamic world mushrooming satellite dishes feed viewers with vivid pictures of girls from western contexts. Often the assumption is that all western girls are of the same cut as those in the soap operas. If they see one walking down the street, they see her as “fair game.” As early as age eight or nine, even when completely covered in culturally appropriate attire, these girls begin to experience being jeered at, touched, and pinched. And even at that young age, they notice that this is not the usual “curiosity harassment” they commonly experience as foreigners (The kind that says, “Oooh! Look at the funny yellow hair…look at the weird blue eyes!”) They sense that this harassment is specifically sexual in nature. It aims at disparagement. It says, “You are contemptible. You deserve to be treated like a slut.”
It is not surprising, then, that MK girls from these settings can grow up despising themselves. Among my acquaintances are women ranging in age from 20 to 60, adult MKs raised in countries stretching from East Asia to the Middle East and North Africa. Many of them still silently agonize and struggle with doubts about their own value and personhood. I’m convinced that at least some of it is rooted in years of disparagement and sexual harassment that was never recognized or acknowledged.
- “Sexual harassment occurs in so many subtle forms and with such frequency that it is a non-event and should just be gotten used to.”
Another silent, but completely false assumption is that because harassment is so commonplace, someone growing up with it must simply get used to it…and if they don’t they are maladjusted. Like the ants, and the heat, and the dust, it’s just another lifestyle adaptation to be made within the culture. The longer we live in a hot climate, the more we learn to develop a tolerance to it. The longer we experience sexual harassment the more desensitized we become. Not true! In his excellent book, The Wounded Heart, which addresses the issues of childhood sexual abuse, Christian psychologist Dan Allender states that any kind of inappropriate sexual contact or interaction with a child causes damage. And the longer the negative interactions continue the deeper the long-term effects.
One response that girls have sometimes heard from adults after an incident is, “Just ignore it!” Think of the underlying messages behind that response. One message is, “Get used to it for goodness sake! What’s wrong with you that you haven’t yet adapted to this culture?” Another message is, “This incident is so insignificant it should be perfectly possible for you to not even notice that it happened.” Notice that at this point it is the child’s feelings of fear, indignation and humiliation that are seen as inappropriate rather than the abuse that happened against her. How, then, would the child respond to the adult? With silence…the silence that comes from being discounted.
- “There is no point in talking because nothing will ever change.”
Whether she realizes it or not, a girl growing up as an MK in an Islamic culture is engaged in a battle for hope in a quagmire of fatalism. The fatalism draws its roots from two primary sources. First, there is the fatalism embedded in an Islamic belief system. Allah, the Supreme and Holy One, has ordained that female is subservient to male. This subservient status is by divine pre-ordination and is based on her inherently lesser value as a created being. To an MK growing up in “the system” it may appear that sexual harassment is an inevitable and justifiable consequence of being born female. There is no point in complaining. It is simply her fate.
The second type of fatalism MKs often experience goes something like this: “God called my parents to this culture. This culture presupposes that I, as a westerner and as a female, will be relentlessly harassed and put down. Therefore, my personal well-being is not as important to God as his “program” for the world. There is no point in asking him to do anything to alleviate or change my situation.”
How do you arm a child to do battle with this two-pronged undercurrent of fatalism? How can you convey the message that something can be done about the situation, change is possible? How can you convince her that being a girl is something to celebrate and that there are wonderful possibilities for her future? It is vitally important to do open battle with the myth of powerlessness and fatalism. When we resign ourselves to the harassment and abuse of our little girls, we give in to the lie that God heartlessly calls people to serve him in ways that deeply damage their children.
- “If I talk about it, I’ll be the one who gets the blame.”
This type of silence is born from the fear of accusation. At first glance it is plain to all of us that the blame for any kind of inappropriate sexual exchange lies fully with the perpetrator. How obvious! But we adults are funny creatures, and sometimes in the throes of frustration and confusion and shock, we are tempted to lash out at those who are nearest at hand and least likely to resist. We can’t confront an unseen hand that has dared to touch our daughter, so in the heat of the moment we turn on the daughter instead. “What were you doing walking on that side of the street? Why can’t you just watch where you’re going?” We feel helpless to vent our fury against a huge and nameless cultural reality, so we break it down to a bite-sized attack against the little face closest to us.
It’s easy to do, and it’s understandable that it sometimes happens, but please don’t do it. Your child will learn from your anger. She’ll learn to be angry as well…angry at herself for being female and vulnerable…angry at her body for somehow inviting an attack…angry with parents who made decisions which placed her in a difficult culture…angry at God for not protecting her and valuing her. And she’ll learn to hold that anger in silence, because instinct tells her that a protest or response could quite possibly result in more blaming.
What would be a response that honors God? Wouldn’t telling the truth honor him? Naming the wrong that was done and the perpetrator of that wrong, comforting the child by being appropriately angry along with her, talking her through the experience? Discussing what happened, how she felt about it, how God feels about it, and possible options for doing things a little differently next time to avoid being hurt again? It is crucially important in the battle against silence to place the blame squarely where it belongs.
- “Why talk? I won’t be heard.”
Sometimes this statement isn’t a lie. It’s the truth. So much has been said about the pressures of ministry overseas and the cost to the family. And often we still don’t “get it.” We still act as though we believe deep down inside that “If I burn myself out for the Lord, he’ll do his part and take care of my family.” Wrong. That is not how it works. Rather, my ministry is in and through my family…just as God’s ministry is in and through his family, the Trinity and the Church. What greater statement can be made about our God and his loving purposes, than that which is written on the faces of our children as they interact with joy and dignity in a difficult place? Just as God listens to the prayers of his people, and intercedes and intervenes for them, so we must take the time to listen to the secret heartaches and concerns of our children. Your daughter needs to know that when she is with you she is in a place of trust, a place where she can find comfort and protection. She needs to be raised in a home where listening to one another is a part of the air that is breathed …an environment of respect and trust and open-heartedness.
As I write this article my heart is torn in two directions. I write it as both a child and a parent. On the one side I see myself as the little girl who climbed guava trees, flew kites, and played deliciously dusty games of marbles lying flat on her stomach, bare feet waving in the air. I see her as a bewildered adolescent who sensed an uneasy change in her world. I see her confusion, walking through the marketplace, eyes lowered. I see the man in the alley brushing past her too closely for comfort…the boy at the window rudely bursting into song…the suggestive smiles, stares and touches.
On the other hand I also see myself as the global working mom. I remember the pleas for God’s grace and strength and forgiveness as we raised three children in an urban, Islamic environment. How hard it was to stay deeply connected to each other as a family in the midst of so many ministry opportunities, cross-cultural responsibilities, political upheavals. How hard it was to think of my children’s emotional and spiritual needs when yet another curfew was announced, or the electricity faltered, or the supply of boiled and filtered drinking water ran out. I remember the guilt feelings as I plunked my little girl in front of a video so I could get just one more load of laundry done, or one more email answered.
So when the small hand tugs incessantly at my shirttail, I know the effort it takes to stop, look my daughter squarely in the face and listen when she says, “Look! Look at what is happening. Do you see? Do you care?” I know how hard it is for agencies in the midst of their visions and strategies, programs and personnel, crises and budget crunches, to stop, take time, kneel down, look directly in the faces of the little ones they are sending overseas, and say, “I see you. I hear you.”
Truly seeing and truly caring for these little ones takes time and effort and thoughtful preparation. But I believe that pro-active intervention in the lives of these girls is far more crucial now than it has ever been before. During my growing up years many Islamic regions of the world were more pragmatic in both religion and in politics than they are now. I remember returning to the field as an adult, after an eleven-year absence. I was astonished at the conservative change in Islamic practice!
At the same time as the shift towards conservatism is taking place among many Islamic nations, Christian agencies are making increasingly concerted efforts to penetrate these less- reached Islamic peoples and cultures. Growing numbers of global working families are raising their children in increasingly rigid Islamic societies. The need, therefore, to talk openly about sexual harassment and abuse in that context is urgent. There must be specific, clearly focused research on the impact on young girls of growing up in Islamic cultures. Wise, sensitive, and godly strategies for raising daughters in these cultures should be discussed and taught to parents and other caregivers.
I deeply believe God continues to call us to serve him in Islamic countries. I also believe that when we do so we are engaged in a battle between darkness and light, between lies and Truth. One of those lies we battle is the one that says to our daughters, “You are of no value. I can treat you however I like.” Our willingness to resolutely engage that lie and expose it, and to raise radiant daughters in dark places, is a reflection of the glory of the One whom we serve. May our daughters deeply know that they are children of the Light.