This is a story that’s hard for me to tell, but one that I believe people need to hear. I want this story heard because there are still many who believe that feminism is not something the Tibetan community needs, that feminism itself is fighting not to elevate the suffering of women and people of other genders, but a campaign to bring down men. I have been told that I do not understand enough about our community, that I view things through the lens of the ‘modern’, ‘western’ education I have received. This is the story of what I have known and experienced and grown up with, all of which has shaped who I am today: a firm believer in the need for feminism for us as a community and in our larger struggle.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I cannot remember the first time I was touched inappropriately, but I do remember that I was touched, kissed and fondled by at least more than five older men that were close to or known by my large extended family. I think it started around the time I was six. There was one particular individual who continued to molest me and repeatedly tried to rape me from the age of ten to twelve years; but there were others too.
Growing up, there was an endless battle within myself where I would try to hold onto my sanity, and the only way to do that was to pretend that these things never happened to me. Many times I felt like I was crazy because I couldn’t tell if the other night he had really climbed into my bed and touched me where I was not supposed to be touched and rubbed his penis against me while I remained frozen in horror and fear, or if I had just imagined it all. I was six, nine, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, seventeen. It didn’t happen very often but often enough that I would be jolted awake from sleep the moment I felt his presence next to my bed at night and stop breathing, my eyes shut so tight my eyeballs would hurt. I would feel his weight sinking into the mattress; I would feel him lift up my blanket and slide in behind me on the bed; I can still feel him slowly start moving against my buttocks and sliding his hands into my underwear. I would cry in the bathroom after it was over. We would wake up the next day and pretend nothing had happened, but I wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye or talk to him for several days.
My mother knew about it. When I told her, she cried and confronted him. He promised he wouldn’t do it again, but he did anyways – for years on end – because he knew he had our silence. We couldn’t risk ripping apart the fabric of our family. We had to live next to each other for the rest of our lives, and if we did happen to cause a break in the family, there was also the risk that outsiders would come to know of this; I know my mother and the rest of the family couldn’t bear to live with such shame.
I started fighting him at a certain point, hitting at him and lashing out when we happened to be alone together. He would laugh at me. He was so much bigger and stronger than me that he laughed as he easily held me down and asked whom was I going to tell, how loud would I scream.
I still hold my tongue about this because I am an adult now and I do not want society pointing fingers at my family. I do not want to be known as the girl who was sexually abused by a member of her own family. Amala told me to tell her if he ever did it to me again and I did tell her the next few times it happened; but he never stopped and I couldn’t bear to see her suffer with this knowledge. So I stopped telling her and I bore it all in silence for years.
I grew up feeling like I was not a child, and I still think that I was never really a child. You’re not supposed to understand sex at ten. You’re supposed to be busy thinking about the next toy you’re going to buy or which beloved cartoon show you’re going to miss because of school. I remember crying at home, staring at the candles flickering in front of the idols, staring at the faces of the buddhas with their calm eyes, asking them repeatedly, endlessly, Why do I have to suffer like this? Why am I being shamed this way? What wrong did I do in my previous lives to be subjected to such suffering at such a young age? And I remember praying that no other girl, no other woman, would ever have to suffer the same fate.
There were other men who kissed me in the dark during large gatherings; family friends or distant cousins who would spend some days at our home and, between play, pick me up and rub me against their penis through their pants. I can still see their faces, still feel their breath on my skin, so often that I’ve felt like scratching my skin off with my nails, the feeling of disgust at my own dirty self was so overpowering. Even writing this now, my skin itches in the familiar way again; I still feel disgusting for the child that knew too much at too young an age.
Yet, it became a way of life for me, something that happened to me time and again that I simply stopped fighting. I’ve met these men again and again and I have had to look at them and talk to them and pretend that their hands never groped at my breasts, their tongues never invaded my mouth, their hard penises had never pushed against me. Maybe that’s why, at sixteen, when I was raped, I didn’t bat an eye. I didn’t want to have sex with that man, but he coaxed and coerced and forced his way into me anyway. I’ve run into him a few times since. Each time, I wonder if he ever feels even the tiniest bit of shame for what he did to me.
I was raped again at eighteen. I never saw that man again, but I had heard that he was telling people I willingly had sex with him and that he made me into a ‘loose woman’. I chose to ignore the rumors rather than revealing that I had been raped. Who would believe me? Who wants to answer all the questions about how he did it, why he did it, how did I feel as the ‘victim’, why did I put myself in that situation, why wasn’t I more careful? Who wants to look at people and see in their eyes pity and disgust, mixed with relief that it hadn’t been them?
I eventually saw a therapist. She was surprised at how well I had managed to ‘heal’ from all this, as she put it. But the truth is, I don’t think I will ever ‘heal’. These things that I grew up with, these evil men and the demons they gave birth to in my head, have changed me in ways that I am still discovering. For the longest time, I was unable to have normal, platonic friendships with men. My brain has become so accustomed to associating men with my vagina, I had to work so hard to get rid of my own prejudices. I gravitate towards older men and do not really know how to behave around men my own age, who I end up thinking of as immature little kids.
As for dating, in my desperation to validate my desirability beyond my body and my worth as a person who could be loved, I have jumped from one relationship to the next, more often than not offering my body to show that I’m offering my heart. This, of course, has led to an endless cycle of heartbreak and the struggle to find love again. A friend once told me not to have sex right away with the next guy I like. I’ve tried listening to her advice, but it’s like my body doesn’t know any other way. People can’t understand why I’m so obsessed with finding love, and honestly, I don’t either; but I suspect it has at least a little to do with the fact that my body has been abused by so many that I feel almost a disconnect with it; at the same time, I try to use it to bribe someone to fall in love with me.
Obviously, I haven’t been able to make a single person stay. I thought that with one guy he would be the one I’d spend the rest of my days with, but there was one fundamental flaw in our relationship; even though he knew about all this (my history is not a secret for many people close to me), he never realized how big a part of me it is. He could not understand the irrational fear in me, the constant drama I put up pretending to be tough and confident, the desperate need to be loved and cared for consistently. It is hard for anyone to understand that and harder still to deal with, but this is something I have very little control over. Self-love and self-care are all very nice and easy to preach, but how do you expect a woman who has gone through all that I have to not need others to love her? How do you ‘heal’ someone who has lived with depression since adolescence and was driven to a suicidal phase twice already in her life?
This is my story, my struggle, the life that I have to make peace with – but I am not the only one. All those men who didn’t hesitate to exploit one child can exploit other children, too. If each man who did those things to me as a child did that to even two other girls, that is 21 girls alone. And how many other men like these must be out there? All of my abusers were Tibetan. These men live among us and they think it’s okay to do this to a child and destroy people’s lives. How many other girls have been, are still being, and will be molested – in our homes, in our schools, in our ‘safe spaces’? How many other women were and will be raped? Will all of them have to go through life carrying this shame in silence? Will all of us have to feel dirty and ashamed of ourselves for something that was never our fault for the rest of our lives? Why are we not talking about this openly and trying to prevent it from happening to others in our community? Why aren’t we working to make sure our girls are safe and our boys don’t turn into these men? Can you really be absolutely confident that your son, your brother, your uncle, your husband have or will never do this to someone?
This is my story, and I have to hide my face while telling it. I cannot assure you that these men will be caught before they do this to someone else. Do not tell me to be brave and bring them to justice. You do not understand the amount of pain a mother feels just knowing that her little girl is suffering; you do not know the shame we already feel in our hearts having gone through this ordeal; we do not want to be judged by those who are not capable of empathy.
This is my story, but it is the story of every girl like me who cannot speak up about her pain and abuse. No matter how difficult it is to imagine that other young girls have faced similar abuse, believe me when I tell you that if our community was more willing to speak openly about and address this issue, you’d find a whole army of wounded Tibetans.
Feminism is helping in very small steps to remove the shame and stigma around this subject and to ensure that our children are safer and more aware. Do not tell us that striving for women’s rights and gender equality is not an immediate concern because the larger Tibetan struggle is more important. We survivors are wounded and tired of fighting for you to simply realize that we are bleeding and hurting.
Whether you’re a woman or man reading this, you may not have experienced any of it yourself; but please do not disregard the power of feminism to change the circumstances for women like me. Is it really fair of you to say that you don’t want to fight for justice because you have never experienced injustice? You may feel that you do not need feminism, but many of us do.
*The author is listed as Anonymous because they requested that we not disclose their identity upon publication. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse, please see the following resources.