Part I: Dispelling the Silence
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 nonevent. 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 happenings, large and small of foreign words and textures and tastes flowing through my blood, heaping my life with good, nonAmerican, 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. A woman who, in truth, is so wonderfully God’s imagebearer…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 must be something bad about me that attracts this kind of attention.” Maybe the silence is also saying, “So what! This happens so often it isn’t even worth talking about. It’s a nonevent.” 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.”
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?’” 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 longterm 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.
Raising Radiant Daughters was first published in our print magazine in 2003. We receive frequent requests to republish this article. In honor of our 15th Anniversary, we are republishing Part I this month and Part II next month.
© 2012 Women of the Harvest.
Question to Consider: How do you encourage your daughters to be radiant?