Content warning: This piece contains situations of sexual violence and abuse, as well as discussions of trauma and mental illness.
When I opened my eyes, the room was filled with a blinding white light. But it didn’t hurt me, because I was a part of it too — I looked down, eyes running over the skin of my Brown legs and torso, fingers reaching down to trace the outline of my navel, and I knew I was alive.
God created me, alone in this white room with nothing in it but the skin on my back and the nails on my fingertips. I instinctively knew what to do, so I did it: I stood on my two feet, raised my tentacled hands, looked into the one mirrored wall in the square room, and I danced.
Then, he came. My dance became wilder, full of a passion I’d never known before, my 15 year-old figure thrashing in all directions, attempting to match the tango of my furiously beating heart.
Then, he took away the mirror, but I kept going. I did not need to see my reflection to move — he saw me clearly enough for the both of us. He loved me! And oh, I loved him so!
Then, he turned off the light, but of course I kept going. I did not need to see my limbs moving, taking shape — he knew any possible form they could take anyway. He knew it better than anyone, and besides, now I could be wilder, even less controlled.
Now, maybe I could stop worrying about matching the rhythm of my heart, tether it to his instead.
Then, he told me the shirt I wore to that party showed a bit too much cleavage, and that his mom had commented on it. If I was going to be his future wife, that sort of thing needed to change.
Then, he told me if I didn’t send him nudes he’d tell everyone what a slut I really was, shatter the image of that nice girl I pretended to be — what kind of father lets a girl act that way, anyway? That’s what they get for moving young girls there. That’s what happens to our girls in America.
Then, he told me to touch myself on camera, to stop fucking crying about it, to get some water and get over it, to shut the fuck up because I was just wrong all the time and I’d never be right for him and it was just all WRONG. I was WRONG.
Then, he told me if I loved him I needed to prove it. He told me I needed to go get hit by a car — not hard enough to kill me, but just enough for him to know what he needed to know.
My dance had stopped by this point, if you haven’t already guessed that.
When I ended it, it wasn’t because I understood what he was doing to me. It was because he slept with my cousin, when sex was still The Sacred Thing you only do with your husband. When he told me that he did it to spite me.
It was too late for me though — I was already a slut. No one would ever love me now because I was used up already, and not even REALLY used up because I would still bleed on my wedding night, but used up enough. And a real Muslim man — actually, any man — could never love me again because I didn’t deserve it.
When I ended it, I became afraid. The Fear seeped out of my entire being, the fear of him becoming The Fear of his kind.
My fear had advanced beyond him, but that can’t be my fault, right? Something is seriously wrong with our kind. Why do we keep creating problems for everyone? Why is every next terrorist attack perpetrated by Muslims? Why is Pakistan ranked one of the worst countries in the world for women? Why are Muslim countries so fucking backwards? Why don’t we have electricity? Why can’t I drink the tap water here? Why are men leering at me on the street? Why are there so many poor people in this Godforsaken country?
And anyway, why do Muslim Men hate Muslim Women so God damned much?
I was lying on the floor in the darkness of the room by this point, when God sent Them.
First, Edward Said: The West has constructed an image of the East as static, unmoving. Of the Oriental man as violent and threatening. Of the East as backwards, of the Brown man as the terrorist.
Second, my father: My father was the sole evidence I had that Brown Muslim man does not have to be violent to woman. He loved my mother in a way that saved me from hating his kind, from hating my kind, from hating myself.
The healing was not quick. It took me a year after ending it to name it: abuse. It took eight therapists, six years of therapy, three medications, two leaves of absence, and five years before I could name the next it: PTSD.
It took reliving That Toxic Relationship with male friends; it took flashbacks to crying while he commanded me to keep going; it took unlearning the idea that sexual pleasure is always for Him, and never for me.
It took understanding I was afraid of men, but especially Brown Muslim Men. It took unlearning that fear through the only example of positive Muslim Love I had.
I’m dancing again. Light dimmer, sure, but the mirror is back up, I am in control again. I know that I am one of the lucky ones.
—Contributing writer Minahil A. Khan’s column, “Unlearning, Decolonizing,” navigates the landscape of identity in her journey as a Brown Muslim immigrant woman decolonizing her psyche. Through personal narrative, it will explore the vacillation between self-love and self-hate, relationships with one’s family and cultural as well as religious communities, and the homeland, both imagined and lived.
My Favorite Things
First KissesOur next kiss: We are in his bedroom, and I tell him I can’t sleep with him. I do not tell him that I’ve never had sex because I am Still Afraid. I do not tell this to any of the boys I kiss, catching the occasional wetness in my eyes before they can notice.
Why Palm Readers Make Good CounselorsHer explanations as to why I ought to do these things may have been pseudoscience, but the positive habits she helped me adopt were not.
Why I Declared: Social Sciences Edition
The Way Things Linger