ENOUGH: Why Women Remain Silent

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories. Following this installment, ENOUGH will take a two-week hiatus and resume on Tuesday, 5/1.

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Why Women Remain Silent
Reema Zaman

We remain silent for it begins while we are so young.

 

Dhaka.

I am eleven. I feel him approaching like an incoming storm. We girls, born and raised in a fractured world, we know to know this. In our bodies, we carry the history of our mothers and every woman before her. Therefore, like a farmer knowing to shield her crops from rain, I feel him.

I manage to escape.

I go to Papa to tell him what happened, and that this same cousin, twenty years older than me, had successfully raped other cousins, girls who warned me.

Papa curls his lip. In anger, I think. Good. He will do something.

Papa speaks.

“Don’t be silly. Boys will be boys. It happens, especially between cousins.”

I swallow something that tastes like a piece of me.

 

Bangkok

I am thirteen. Momma, Papa, my younger brother, sister, and I walk through the mall. It is December in Bangkok, the height of our tourist season. Rotund European, Australian, and American male tourists swagger through the mall, the streets below, the alleys, the country, each with a Thai woman or man on their arm, hired to satiate their palette. The men beam, swelling with confidence, treated like deities for as the predominant clientele for Thailand’s sex industry, one third of the nation’s income, they dictate the livelihoods of millions.

One such man and his paid-for girlfriend are coming this way as we walk that way. She meets my eyes briefly, confessing pages in mere seconds. The man, his face red with sunburn and Singha Beer, jeers at me, winks, licks his bottom lip. I instinctively draw closer to Papa, reaching for his arm.

“Chi, chi, chi,” Papa shoos my hand off his arm, saying shame, shame, shame in Bengali. “People will think you’re my girlfriend.”

 

I am eighteen. I cradle the red-inked letters in my hands, their words threatening to bleed into me. Written by my Honors Psychology Teacher, each letter is three pages deep, the penmanship entirely red and capitalized, the letters so uniformly erect that they resemble font.

He writes, “You are a naughty girl. You have misbehaved and deserve to be punished.” He regales all the ways I’ve misbehaved, all the ways he will punish. He has found out my class schedule as well. He waits until I’m in each class before calling the classroom phone. He tells me, “I’m recording these calls.”

I imagine this for him is sex. Power. Hunting. Tracking. All synonymous. He enjoys keeping my voice recorded in a small, silver box. To play when he wishes.

When it’s time for his class, he stands in front of the room, staring with a look he reserves for me. He has gray hair down to his shoulders and a handlebar mustache. He stares, stroking his mustache lovingly, petting it like a penis.

I take the letters to my Headmaster. I sit in the swivel chair kept for visitors, my legs swinging like a child’s. The tag on my school uniform scratches my neck.

I tell him of the calls. I recite them word for word. I don’t know why I have the memory I do, that vice-grips words and scenes with surgeon-like precision. Perhaps this is what happens when your body has known trauma since childhood. It holds onto history in case you need a witness for the wounds you carry, or to help protect you from future ones.

“Thank you for telling me,” says the Headmaster.

“You’re welcome,” I reply, automaton, for I am a well-trained girl.

“Would you like to involve your parents?”

“No, thank you.” I reply with the truest truth. “They aren’t available.”

“Please don’t share this with anyone else,” he says. “You can return to class now.”

He knows, according to my schedule, it’s time for Psychology.

I’m to return to him?

I go to class, take my seat. He watches me, stroking.

 

New York.

I am twenty-two. His clammy hands move ungainly against my thighs like salmon trying to swim upstream. A Michelin-star, Food Network celebrity chef, he is king in his Manhattan restaurant while I am a lowly hostess. I’m pinned on a wall, my 5’4’ 100 lbs. utterly pitiful to his 6’2, 200 lbs., as he grinds his mouth and body against mine.

The sommelier looks on, laughing. The three of us were in the middle of planning tonight’s menu.

Soon, the guests arrive.

 

I am twenty-three. I thought he was a friend.

I am fortunate that my rape is quick. He is economical with time, pain, words, and me.

He says but one sentence: “You’re just too beautiful.” Spit between thrusts, his words attempt to paint me in blame, shame, guilt for being myself.

At twenty-three, I don’t know this yet but in the years to come, anytime I hear words along the lines of, “Why wear you wearing a short skirt?” or, “You should’ve known better,” or “She shouldn’t dress like that if she wants to be safe,” I will think of my rapist. I will think of the ways you and he are similar.

But at twenty-three, he finally leaves. I sit in the dark for fifteen minutes, weighing my options, the cost of each. I decide not to take legal action. As an immigrant, I don’t want to jeopardize my chances for remaining in the United States. Here in the land of the supposed free, the fine-print claims I am to be treated, believed, protected equally as an American. But often, the fine-print fails to inform reality. I am brown. I am a woman. I am not rich. I am commonplace. I know better than to speak.

 

I am twenty-six. The party glitters with patrons of the theater, their diamonds, perfume, saccharine laughter choking the night air.

“You’re just the cutest little thing.” My director caresses my back. “So innocent. Our Bangladeshi princess.” He laughs.

“I could show you the world,” he croons from Disney’s Aladdin. He drops the tune, continues. “You need to loosen up. You need a good fisting. I’ll get right up in there until you taste all thirty-two flavors and then some.”

I want to tell him Ani DiFranco is a feminist and wouldn’t appreciate his joke. But I say nothing.

My husband, here the entire time, laughs, buckling nearly in half from the intensity of his mirth. He and the director slap each other on the back. A job a well done.

 

I am eighteen, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, and eight. On the subway, I see my other selves, looking like a wad of gum hastily hidden underneath a school-desk. Her and her and her, gray, hardened, disposable. Her eyes meet mine as we try to regain balance in this broken world that is so adept at shattering its girls. I wonder who, where, when. Was she thrown against a wall, into a corner, on the bed, on the ground, or in an alley as her dignity was stripped away? Were the insults and intimidation thrown at school, over dinner, online, or at work? I can’t say but I recognize the result, as familiar as Momma’s voice. A look that comes from indignity inflicted in any form. It is eyes sapped of light and a spirit withered.

 

Portland.

I am now thirty-three. For thirty years, I remained silent. I tucked every story into a music box hidden behind my lungs, a tiny ballerina spinning on its lid. With every breath, she fought for space. With every year, every new story, she spun dutifully to her sparse tune.

I remained silent for decades not because I was ashamed. Not because of fear. Not because of pain. I remained quiet for I have learned it is often the way people react to stories of pain that hurts more than the event or memory itself. With every relative, partner, peer with whom I tried to speak, they proved quickly that sharing my stories with them would wound me rather than serve me.

I began to speak at thirty. I wrote a memoir. Then, I decanted my stories onstage. On page, onstage, they bloom.

Now at thirty-three, I watch the waves of women come forth, divulging the history we, our mothers, their mothers have carried for centuries. Inspired by a voice within or external, a chorus of voices, Me too, me too, me too they sing, one by one, torches in the inky night coming to light.

To speak is a revolution. Not only for it requires audacity but because we are expert at silence.

We excel at muting truth because for the culture of violence against women to exist and thrive, it requires the culture of female silence. They are married, each partner as old as the other.

“Why do women remain silent?”

“Why didn’t you say anything until now?”

This they ask us. Wondering. Curious. Scornful. Judgmental.

We remain silent for it begins while we are so young. We remain silent because you taught us to swallow our voice. We remain silent for our silence makes the powerful rich. We remain silent for every time we have tried to speak, you have minimized the gravity of our pain. We remain silent because while one man assaults, another looks away or looks laughing, or makes jokes about rape over Thanksgiving dinner, or onstage during his stand-up, or laughs from the audience. We remain silent because you need well-behaved daughters and wives to live your life peacefully. We remain silent for the very systems built to protect us dehumanize us further. We remain silent for in place of empathy, you give us shame, blame, ignorance, lectures, stigma. We remain silent because the crimes inflicted upon us mean so little to those in power.

The question to ask isn’t, “Why do women remain silent?”

A better question is, “How have I contributed to their silence?”

As for my sisters finally speaking, I watch them swell with the elation that comes from voicing one’s narrative on one’s own terms. “Why does this feel so good?” they ask, incredulous, unaccustomed to sharing their stories.

Acknowledgment. Such is the magic of writing and sharing one’s truth. After a lifetime of being silenced, overlooked, ignored, when we unleash our words, we are validating our own existence. After decades of having our identity, roles, and duties ghostwritten by others, we are now the authors of our lives. Writing is akin to saying, “I am here. My own witness. I refuse to be forgotten. I matter.”

Change, like humankind, is birthed by us women. We have realized progress is ours to architect—in this fractured world, it is the wisdom we have gained through our wounds that will repair the brokenness. We are thus setting the tiny dancer free. We are wresting our narratives from the hands of others. Your story links to her story links to mine, forming a chain, an embrace to mend the splintered Earth. We are surrendering our silence, an inheritance we never asked for, and with that, we claim our independence. New nation rising, we aria our anthem.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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