“I hope that someday, the family—so highly esteemed in our social structures—will protect women and young girls, and stop apologizing for men when they have wronged women.”
Lee Mwaita | Zimbabwe
I remember standing outside of myself and wondering how I should respond to his sexual advances, his clammy hands clawing me, the lewd sexual innuendos directed at me, the leery looks cast above my aunt’s head as we sat at the dinner table. He was, after all, my guardian following my father’s death. I wondered if he felt entitled, and whether or not he was actually entitled to the fringe benefits accruing to him by the mere fact of sending me to school, having provided me with a roof over my head and food in my stomach.
These were my options: I could play along just so I could be out of harm’s way and not ruffle feathers unnecessarily. I could report him to my aunt to put an end to his predation of me, even though it meant destroying their marriage and alienating me from the people who provided a roof over my head. I could report him to the police and risk alienating myself from the bigger family by taking matters into my own hands.
By cultural right, resolution of the matter belonged to my uncles, so I took it to them. By this time, they knew about this predation but had chosen to let the matter rest—it was more important to them that I finish my school with a roof over my head and in the mean time it was my job to protect myself from this man in his own house.
My aunt was willing to forgive him this one transgression among innumerable indiscretions he committed against her. She was unwilling to doubt him when he told her I lied about his molestation of me, even though it was not the first time he had sexually molested someone; he molested a maid once before.
To believe me would shatter the perfectly embroidered lie of their marriage and depreciate her standing among her church peers. She herself had suffered sexual abuse at a young age and I felt she should have known better about the trauma that I had gone through. Her condemnation of me made things worse. It made me believe this was truly bigger than myself, and that I could not do anything about it.
I found myself being judged along the lines of the perpetuated purity myth, a good girl paradigm that places the emphasis on women remaining chaste, conflating abstinence with responsibility. My case was judged too, along the lines of the myth of male weakness, which suggests that all men are cavemen; brutish and hyper-sexual, that their civility is a mist which can evaporate at any time.
I heard the suggestion that men, driven by the irresistible forces of the Y chromosome and testosterone, are to be applauded for even the most half-hearted efforts at self-restraint. Their ‘inherent’ vulnerability to temptation suggested that it was my job to protect him from himself.
I remember all too vividly the shame I felt when I shouldn’t have felt shame, the horrible guilt I felt when I should not have felt guilty. I felt like I owed it to both of them to keep them together, that I owed it to my family to forget my own pain. It was more important to recognize the collective good that would result from shutting up. I was socialized to think in terms of the collective, never mind the individual harm caused. But it grated that the very system ostensibly designed to protect me, patriarchy, was working to stifle the very life out of me.
When sexual abuse happens to women, I will them with everything that is in me to fight using the law at their disposal. However, I am aware that the same law was available to me then as it is now, but I have not used it to bring the perpetrator to book. So many factors inform my decision, least of which is that reliving the trauma is not something I particularly relish doing. I imagine that there are plenty of women like myself who have been faced with the same dilemma and have not done as justice would have them do because there are so many other factors to consider.
I hope that someday women shall rise and cease to live in a state of predestined misery. I hope my first-hand knowledge will contribute to creating this world. It is time to stop apologizing for the violence against us.
I hope that someday, the family—so highly esteemed in our social structures—will protect women and young girls, and stop apologizing for men when they have wronged women. I envision a world where women do not have to apologize for being women as I had to—and still continue—to do.