For this issue’s Gup Shup, we had a talk with Ajwah Nadeem and Fatima Razzaq. Ajwah is an English Literature graduate from Kinnaird College and an Activist. Fatimah is a journalist who writes on current affairs and social issues. She’s a gender rights activist and strives to make an equitable world possible.
The questions asked are questions sent by our readers + questions asked by us.
- What is the one thing someone should NEVER say or do when someone shares their experience as a survivor?
Ajwah: Even though it is very intuitive that the victim/survivor shouldn’t be victim blamed amongst the people reading this, I’d like to talk about the subtler responses that constitute as victim blaming but aren’t often recognised as such. When the victim opens up about their abuse to their loved ones (since they’re more likely to open up to them than anyone else), our loved ones are shocked, in pain and feel helpless. In that state, they can very easily make it about themselves. I strongly feel that there are right and wrong ways to show that pain. When the loved ones, due to their helplessness, say “why didn’t you tell me sooner?”, “why did you never tell me while it was going on?”, that also constitutes as victim blaming, and can make the survivor feel like they are going to be a burden. It can make them regret opening up since they are already scared of being questioned and doubted. These are subtler, but just as painful, ways of questioning their choices.
Fatima: Never say/do anything that makes a survivor feel that it was their fault. Just do not. There are no ifs and buts here. It was nothing that they could have done differently. There is one person to blame and that is the abuser.
Never compare one survivor and their coping mechanisms with the others. Everyone has a different experience of abuse and different ways in which they react or deal with it. There is no right or wrong way to be a survivor.
Never invalidate anyone’s experience. If you think differently about a certain person, you can say that it wasn’t the same for you but your personal experience with someone does not mean the same for someone else. You can say ‘ I do not relate to this but I would not invalidate their experience’.
- What is the one thing someone should say/do when someone shares their experience as a survivor?
Ajwah: To say that they are going to be there for all the ups and downs, and through all the rough phases even if they might not be able to imagine the intensity of the pain. It shows that you’re willing to be there through the harsh, distant and uncertain present and future of the victim. That is all a survivor wants. They don’t feel safe. This makes them feel cared for, and as if they matter, and that makes them feel secure enough to take space.
Fatima: Many times survivors of any kind of sexual violence blame it on themselves. Their trauma and the consequent loss of control or agency in that situation makes them feel that they could have avoided the situation had they done something differently: Had they been more vigilant, had they not taken a certain route, had they not reacted in a certain way, had they been stronger, had they worn something else and a trillion similar thoughts. To add on that, our society also has similar reactions whenever a survivior comes forward by blaming them for going out late, criticizing their choice of dress, their looks, their job, etc. we blame everything and everyone other than the perpetrator.
Recently, I met with a 15 years old girl who had been abducted and kept in captivity for almost 6 months. She was repeated raped in that time. In one of our conversations, I asked her what she feels when she thinks of that time.
She responded with telling me that she feels anger. To my surprise, she added that the anger was directed at her and not the person. “I get angry that why was I so naïve. I should have known better. I should have escaped his clutches. I am so mad that I was so weak,” she says.
In a situation where most survivors are self-critical, it is important to reassure them that it was not their fault and it was not anything that they could do differently.
- How can we built support systems for survivors?
Ajwah: In most cases, families are not supportive or resort to well-intentioned (but hurtful) efforts to trivialise the abuse to help their loved one “overcome” it. Friends are usually the more supportive networks we can access. I think it’s important to clearly convey what you would prefer to them for the sole reason that this is unchartered, and difficult territory where any mess-up can elicit shame and betrayal. It’s best to sidestep that, if possible. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to. This might be a controversial opinion but I think that friends can also only provide limited support due to most of us having our own mental health struggles, and life being full of deadlines and commitments that keep us busy. Trauma is also a long-term mental strain, and friends usually cannot consistently provide that. Because of that, I strongly believe that support networks that go beyond reliance on individuals are crucial. That can take many shapes and forms. One of them can be the amazing Chadar support network specifically set up to share the struggles with other survivors. I think that it’s integral to get in touch with other survivors, and become part of collective spaces that either acknowledge and prioritise that trauma, or make it their priority to fight against the structural issues that exacerbate it. That can give a bigger perspective to the individual and internal struggle tearing us from the inside. It feels like we are part of a bigger and collective effort to right the wrong that has fucked up our lives, and makes us feel less helpless. I think it’s important to keep on working on making such spaces survivor-friendly.
Fatima: I wont give a very technical so far fetched answer to this one. I think the most important thing is having conversations. Talk to survivors, talk about survivors and talk for survivors. Learn their stories, get to know what they went through and how they dealt with it. Get to know the variety of experiences that survivors have, the range of emotions that they felt, the diversity of coping mechanisms that they adopted. And once you get to know that, share with others.
For any real and meaningful change, you need to know the people who have suffered at the hands of the injustice. There are many platforms right now that are writing about survivor centric stories. Read them. When you read about a story in news, follow up on that, reach out to them and talk about it. The more survivor-centric conversations that we have, the better society we will be able to create.
- Can you share something that you would like to say to survivors who might read this?
Ajwah: Your trauma is valid. You should not blame yourself or hold yourself responsible for how it’s changed and alienated you because that’s your body trying to protect you. It’s the different parts in our bodies, whether it may be excessive sleeping, shutting down, disassociation, regulating the feelings that we don’t have access to most of the times. It’s your body fighting for you. It can learn how to fight better but that doesn’t change that it’s protecting you out of care, love and the sheer desire to survive. Those parts of you deserve love, not blame. You can love and criticise them at the same time. A lot of our self-regulation depends on building capacities, and that, most of the time, is affected by factors that are beyond our control, or that take time to cultivate. You deserve all the appreciation and love for surviving through a pain that one day came and uprooted your entire life.
Fatima: For any survivor reading this, you are not alone. What you went through was not your fault and I know that it might seem too overwhelming right now but at your own pace, whenever you find it in you, share it with the people you trust. Remember that you did the best that you could in that situation and that is enough. Instead, direct your anger to only the abuser and the system that enabled them.
I think it is important to say that there is no right way to be a survivor. Just because you have gone through something does not mean that you have to be an activist now or a mobiliser or talk about it publicly. I think sometimes, survivors feel the pressure to make something out of their trauma and make it better for others. While you can do that if you want to, it is absolutely not your responsibility.
- I’ve a question for the activists about body shaming, how should we respond to the body shaming if it’s from someone’s husband or boyfriend? In a way that next time they just don’t dare to say anything
Ajwah: I think the best way is to directly tell them that it’s hurtful, and to open up about the way it has consistently made you feel in the past too. It’s best to do so with specific examples. The husband or boyfriend make that joke because they under estimate it’s impact, and it’s normalised to such a huge extent in our society that they think of it as just another joke. Saying that it’s hurtful and being firm about it makes the impact of their joke clear to them. Even if they still think that it’s a joke and that you’re over-reacting, they know that it is going to cause pain, and can’t shy away from that consequence anymore. If they are decent enough, they hopefully won’t make such jokes anymore. This might not work for everyone. Having said that, guilting my mother into realising how it’s destroyed my confidence makes her more hesitant to indulge in such jokes. I hope that the reader who asked this can find a strategy which works best for them.
Fatima: Unfortunately we live in a fat-phobic and able-ist world where there is little sensitivity about body shaming. We are quick to pass comments about someone’s weight and body changes without realizing the impact it would have on them.
It is even worse when it is a partner or family member who thinks that its okay to make these comments. If you are in a similar situation, I would suggest that you do the following:
Bring the topic in normal conversations which are not a consequence of their comments. While watching television, show your disgust at how there is only a one-size image shown, point out instances where two people were casually commenting on someone’s body and explain how bad it is. Tell them how you heard a celebrity talk about her struggles with casual body shaming.
In a way, slowly and gradually condition them and when you feel appropriate move on to establish clear boundaries. Tell them that you do not like this and in doing so show them how it makes you feel.
- How can one cope with feelings of shame about not having a “feminine” body, triggered by humour or banter from family or people with whom it’s hard to establish boundaries regarding jokes etc.
Ajwah: Family humour is a pit that usually can’t be overcome by discussions, since it’s much harder to have vulnerable conversations in group settings. Two things have helped me cope with the shame, and the instinctive dislike whenever I see myself in the mirror. Firstly, reading up on why that shame exists, how it’s not a personal failing, reading up others’ experience of it and of how they are able to resist it. I think that builds up our capacity to resist the overwhelmingly intense nature of such shame. Searching up hot women who aren’t feminine enough but are still very charming and physically appealing helped too. This might sound shallow but I think it’s positive affirmation of the alternative vision that’s intuitively harder for our minds to imagine. Secondly, ignoring them or being very angry at them. Sometimes, they tease you to get a reaction out of you, and ignoring them can make it less fun to engage in the “harmless” humour. Sometimes, being extremely angry can make them want to avoid upsetting you, if only because it’s more of a hassle to handle an upset person.
Fatima: Family at times become very toxic and we need to understand that its okay to not like something that your loved ones say and questioning their acts does not mean that you don’t love them enough. So first, absolve yourself of the guilt that you might have.
Your body is your choice and nobody is entitled to tell you what it should look like. The way you look, the way you choose to look and the way you want to see yourself should only be controlled by one person and that is you yourself.
While you can try the above slow conditioning methods, I think it is important to communicate your boundaries to your family or loved ones. It is easier with strangers and friends but harder with family because they feel entitled to give their opinion in your best interest. Maybe opening up about what these casual comments make you feel (and using rhetoric) and how hurt you get would make them understand that it is not okay to do so. But only do that if you feel that you wont be seen as the ‘sensitive’ girl who takes everything to heart. If that’s the risk you run, the be prepared for a more stern fight.
Interestingly enough, I have found it helpful to share memes on fatphobia and brown parents in the family groups…anything that tells them how they are consciously or unconsciously being a part of a very toxic culture.