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Risha Fathima — May 25, 2024

Sharing A Table With Your Abuser: An Intersectionality-Based Journey Of Healing From Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)

Risha Fathima

Have you ever been forced to share a table with your abuser? If so, I bet we are talking about some old uncle, a cousin, or some random creep from your extended family. They are the ones who get to be part of these family dinners again!

Personally, five of my most traumatic sexual abuse instances were from within my own family. When it came to this matter, mine turned out to be a classic Indian family. As I wrote this piece, I was having such a meal, and I was serving with a scarred hand.

Scar is the right word. How did things get there? The title says CSA (Child Sexual Abuse), so, was it through grooming? Coercion? Exploitation? In my case, it was all of the above. Each of these terms captures an aspect of my experiences. But what I want to focus on first is the underlying socio-cultural grooming—the way a certain level of trust, often blind faith, is ingrained in us for every familial relative. And the crazy part is it doesn’t end with trust. It extends to mandatory respect – and that is even trickier!

In a Desi household, family dynamics are a tangled web of hierarchies, loyalties, and unspoken rules. Confrontation, especially about something as taboo as sexual abuse, is almost unthinkable. It manifests as whispers behind closed doors, nervous glances, and painful silence at family gatherings. The consequences of speaking out can be severe—ostracization, victim-blaming, and the inevitable dismissal of your pain. This culture of silence ensures that the abuse is never truly acknowledged, let alone addressed.

So, primarily, I was in the exploited category. I was too young and ignorant to realize that I was being abused. Did I hear someone mention Comprehensive Sexuality Health Education? Oh, we’re not there yet. We’ll get there someday, though. But coming back to the point, I didn’t know I was being taken advantage of, and it was always some family member who privately acknowledged the abuse to me, only to turn around and blame me for it, never bringing it up again. The weight of guilt and shame was placed squarely on my shoulders. I was made to feel as if I had disrupted the family harmony, as if my truth was less important than maintaining the façade of unity. Trust in the “brother” was so deeply ingrained that my experience was minimized, pushed aside, and ultimately ignored.

The Betrayal of Trust

The concept of trust within an Indian family is sacrosanct. It’s woven into the fabric of our upbringing. We are taught to respect and trust our elders and relatives implicitly. This blind trust becomes a shield for abusers. The idea that someone within the family could cause harm is so alien (or still so ignored) that it’s easier to dismiss the victim than to confront the uncomfortable reality.

“Trust” in a “brother” or an uncle is not just about believing they wouldn’t harm us; it’s about the deep-rooted belief that they are incapable of such acts. This denial is reinforced by the collective need to preserve family honour. Admitting to abuse would mean acknowledging that the family failed to protect its own, a notion too painful for many to accept.

The Weight of Guilt

And so, the burden of guilt, as always, falls on the victim. Guilt here is two-pronged: i) we carry the weight of the abuse and ii) the added guilt of having spoken out. As a child survivor, in one prolonged instance of abuse from someone I was told was the “brother,” I was confused about two things: first, whether what was happening was wrong or not, because someone I was made to respect couldn’t possibly wrong me; and second, at a later point, when I did recognize it as wrong, whether I was supposed to let my mother know or not. Why? Because I was scared to complain against an elder brother. Objectively speaking, the societal expectation is to maintain silence so as to keep the family unit intact. Therefore, this misplaced guilt often prevents victims from seeking justice or even talking about their experiences.

As a law student, when I think about it, in many ways, it’s still like how it was when the rape laws were first introduced in the Indian Penal Code, way back in 1860. Back then, it’s said there were two suspects in a rape case: one, the prosecutrix, who’s charged with consent; and two, the accused, who’s charged with the act. I feel like we’re still stuck there—I still see two suspects—this time, the victim accused of the crime and the abuser charged with barely any guilt. The abuser often gets away with minimal consequences, if any, while the victim carries the scar, both physical and emotional, for life.

 The Politics of Remembrance

How do we deal with these scars? How do we continue to serve with a scarred hand? The politics of remembrance plays a crucial role here. The abuser, more often than not, has the privilege to forget, to move on as if nothing happened. For them, it might be a defense mechanism, a way to cope with their guilt, or perhaps a testament to their lack of remorse. But for us, the survivors, the memory lingers—a constant reminder of the violation and the subsequent betrayal by our own family.

The privilege of the abuser to forget or to minimize their actions is in stark contrast to the survivor’s reality. For us, every family gathering, every shared meal, and every silent glance is a reminder of the abuse. It’s a scar that time does not easily heal, and one that we are forced to carry in a culture that prioritizes family honour over individual well-being.

Why Does This Pattern Repeat?

Why does this pattern of abuse and denial repeat? It’s because our domestic laws and societal norms fail us. We do have criminal laws that address sexual abuse within the family, which is to say, the legal framework is adequate in dealing with the intricacies of familial abuse. However, even though the law may recognize the crime, societal norms often prevent it from being reported or prosecuted.

Therefore, we need a cultural shift that prioritizes the victim’s voice over the family’s reputation. We need to confront the uncomfortable truth that sometimes, the greatest threat comes from those closest to us, and that home is not always a safe space. On those grounds, I’d say we need laws that not only protect but also empower victims to speak out without fear of retribution or ostracization—but these should be domestic laws within every family. It should manifest as an understanding that crimes do happen within the four walls of a house too, an acknowledgment that one’s child could also get abused, and a proactive spirit to speak up for and with your kid, against whoever the abuser is.

The Road Ahead

Sharing a table with your abuser is not a pleasant experience. It forces you to relive the trauma, to navigate the intricate dance of pretending everything is normal while your mind screams otherwise. It’s a stark reminder of the deep-seated issues within our society and the urgent need for change. As I sit at that table, serving with a scarred hand, I remind myself that my voice matters. Our voices matter. And though the road to healing is long and fraught with challenges, we will walk it with courage and resilience.

In this journey of healing, we must demand justice, both within our families and from our legal systems. And from ourselves too—let’s not blame ourselves on top of every other person who once and forever tried to silence us. Let’s keep challenging the norms that enable abusers and silence survivors. Most importantly, let’s remember that our scars do not define us—they are, at most, a testament to our strength and our unwavering determination to reclaim our lives and our narratives.

Each step we take towards healing is a step towards reclaiming our power. By sharing our stories, confronting our abusers, and demanding change, we are not just healing ourselves—we are paving the way for others to find their voices. Our collective strength can challenge the status quo and bring about the change that has been so desperately needed since forever. But let’s also remember, it’s perfectly alright if we don’t have the energy to fight every day—your very being is a resistance against this system that tried to bring you down.

In conclusion, I’d say the battle against familial sexual abuse is a long and arduous one. It requires bravery, resilience, and an unwavering belief in the importance of our stories. As we navigate this journey, let’s remember that we are not alone. Our voices, when united, can create a powerful force for change. Let us continue to share our stories, confront our abusers, and demand the justice and recognition that we deserve. Together, we can transform our scars into symbols of strength and resistance.

(P.S.: I understand that the term “scar” may not resonate with everyone, as it implies something permanent, and no offense is intended. I have used both “victim” and “survivor” interchangeably to respect the varied preferences of individuals, and I mean no offense to either group. I also want to acknowledge that not every survivor may feel empowered to challenge the system, and that’s okay. Healing is a personal journey at the end of the day. And I love you, all of you! Hugs!)

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