Trigger warning: sexual assault, abuse, acid attack
When night falls, and darkness covers the sky like a blanket, I gaze at the stars decorated above, like pearls on a silk cloth, it amazes me of how something so futile as the sky, could inspire me to create a million words. I shut my eyes, breathing in a steady motion, trying to calm down the anxious feeling at the pit of my stomach. I had always been feeling so, ever since I was a young child. Being a woman, I learned at a very young age that my body was incapacitated. The limbs that I possess can be overpowered easily, and my hands that I love so dearly can be grabbed by someone older than me, someone with a height of a boogeyman I once saw in a dream.
But ghosts and villains, they do not scare me anymore. It is the human beings who hide their true intentions behind sugar-coated words and sweet lies, the ones who hide their real faces behind a mask and wait for the right moment when they can prey upon a person with a soul as pure as the sea and skin as soft as honey. Opening my eyes, I see the crack of dawn.
As the sky changes into different shades of pink, red, and blue, I think of all those times when I remained quiet instead of shouting or making a sound. Nevertheless, would it had made a difference? If I had spoken up back then, would they have believed me? Then again, people do have a tendency of not believing those who speak the truth. And if you were to ask me who the most hated person in this world is, I’d say, it is someone honest, it is a woman who speaks the truth.
Aren’t we all liars? We’re good at hiding the truth, about the grief residing in our hearts and the storm that we carry within ourselves. We lie when someone asks if we’re okay. We lie when someone asks if we’re happy. We lie when someone asks if this is the kind of job we’d do for the rest of our lives. We lie when they ask us about the stories we hide within and the scars we’re too afraid to show. We lie when they ask if we have moved on from the one who got away. We lie when they ask if we’re in love with those who’ve stayed. All we do is lie, and perhaps the reason why we do so is that it makes things less complicated.
Truth is one of the most bitter pills to swallow. It pierces the heart of the listener, tearing it in two, wounding it for an eternity. That is precisely how I felt when the doctors told me what had happened that night as I sat on the train all alone, waiting for a miracle to come to me.
Us human beings, we’re so good at lying, I wonder if we would ever be able to speak of the truth. Because the truth, we are afraid of it, we are fearful of the havoc it might cause and the storm it might stir. The chaos is created when women ask for the rights they possess as human beings. So we remain quiet, sealing our lips until the truth gets sealed into our throats and rolls down our face in the form of silent tears, plastered behind a smile that says, “I am okay.”
And that’s why I lied when he asked me if his touch I liked. I nodded, gulping away the truth that screamed: “You’re killing me from the inside.”
I look to my side, and a field of sunflowers appear before my eyes. I wonder what it felt like to be the sunflower, to greet the sun every morning, gazing at its beauty as it shone in its full glory, to let the earth look after me, and to live among those who are bedazzled by me. I wonder if living in a field of sunflower is safer than living in one’s home, perhaps then I wouldn’t have been so broken, perhaps then I would’ve been okay.
Waking up from that beautiful dream, I open my eyes to see the faces of my loved ones surrounding me, teary-eyed, they gazed at me. I was not in a sunflower field anymore. My body ached, and my face stung. Half conscious, I heard the doctors whisper “it’s another acid attack” as the police officers interrogated them vigorously. They thought it was an ex-partner or a proposal I once rejected. It was nothing new to them; they were used to seeing half-burned bodies and faces of females, even as young as seventeen. One of the most common reasons why we girls were attacked in such a horrendous way was due to the refusal of sex, denial of physical intimacy, and the refusal of going out on a date with someone we had no interest in.
Do I remember the sensation? Of course, I do. It felt warm, almost as warm as the burning sun. Moments passed by, and an agonizing ache encompassed my body, nearly as painful as heartbreak. What was a mistake I had done to deserve punishment as such? All I did was utter the word “no.” The man I once knew, asked me to sleep with him or he’d find someone new. After years of feeling his revolting touch on my skin, I gathered the courage in me to refuse. All those years, I kept agreeing to things I didn’t want to do, so he’d be content with me, and I’d bear it, no matter what he’d do.
Growing up, girls are conditioned to believe our worth is determined by how much our partner is satisfied with us, both emotionally and physically. If he cheats on us, it is our fault. If he raises his hand on us, it is our fault. If he throws acid on us, it is our fault. And as I lay on the hospital bed, I wondered, are girls brought into the world for the sole purpose of making those around them happy?
I wish to live in a world where girls are encouraged to think for themselves despite their sacrificial nature. I wish to live in a world where girls are given the freedom to say the words “no,” without it sounding like she didn’t mean it. I wish to live in a world where men are not given the freedom to burn a girl’s body, just for the sake of his ego. I wish to live in a world where girls’ bodies are not considered as properties.
I wish to live in a world where girls are not nurtured to believe that their sole purpose is to love and be loved in return because a girl is so much more than a housewife, a sister, or a mother. She is her own being, an individual with dreams. I wish to live in a world where girls are not attacked for following their dreams. I wish to live in a world where girls, even as young as fifteen, are not thrown acid upon for the sake of escaping a forced marriage.
Who am I? I am Saba Shaheen, a 19-year-old girl who was attacked with acid thrown on her face from a suitor that I had rejected at the mere age of fifteen. I am Shama, the mother of a young boy and the wife to a man who destroyed my face because ‘I took too much pride in my beauty.’ I am Farkhanda Younas, a dancing girl from Karachi, who was drenched in acid by the hands of those who were supposed to protect me.
I am Laxmi Agrawal, a girl who survived a gruesome attack because I refused the advances of a 32 year-old-man who kept harassing me. I am Priya Singh, the woman who was attacked twelve days after her wedding because I rejected the marriage proposal of a man whose ego was too fragile to accept my refusal. I am Anmol Rodrigues, a girl who was attacked at the mere age of two, along with her mother, by her very own father. What was our fault? All we said was “no.”
If we had said “yes,” would we had been okay? If we had accepted their proposals, if we had agreed to sleep with them, despite loathing their very presence, would we had been content?
I refuse to let someone decide the kind of life I would live. They threw acid on our faces, but not on our dreams. Our faces might be destroyed, but our courage is still alive. The most hated person in this world is someone who speaks the truth. Perhaps that is the reason why they consider us bad women who are worth punishing because we speak the truth. When we ask them for the rights we possess as human beings, they call us “Cheap Feminists” and shun us away with their vile words.
But we are women, someone who can carry an entire person inside us for nine months, someone who is the source of life to a human being, how can our worth be demeaned with mere words as “no?” Certain men are conditioned to believe that they own the woman that they love. But they don’t realize that we are our own individuals with feelings.
If you think throwing acid upon my face and body would make me lose the battle of life, then you are wrong. There are hundreds of girls that give up because they are afraid of facing their fears; they are fearful of the loathing stares of children and the pitying gazes of strangers on the street. But I aspire to be a symbol of strength to all those women who remain hidden because they are too hesitant to face the world. I say, come out, and be proud. Wear your acid scars with dignity. These are a symbol of war, a war that you had won.
As I gaze at my reflection in the mirror tonight, I do not see a burned face. Instead, I see a transformed girl, the spark my eyes once lost had come back because I finally learned to let go of those who caused nothing but grief to my soul. I had finally learned to follow my heart and refuse to the sexual extensions of a man I loathed. They thought I’d be mourning, but instead, I am overwhelmed. To the outside world, I might be an acid attack victim, a poor girl who has an unfortunate fate. But today is the day that I am free. Free from the clutches of the expectation of the society, free from the patriarchal norms of what a girl should be.
Sharing my story does not make me a victim. The thing I feared the most had already happened to me, and I overcame my demons, surviving through the thing most people do not survive. Perhaps my story of strength could be the light someone has been searching for. I aspire to teach the young girls out there not to be afraid of speaking their truth. Your story matters.
Do not be scared of letting out the truth you hold inside. Because the longer you wait to speak, the more girls are going to suffer. And at a place where they want to utter no, they will continue uttering yes, as it pours out of their mouth, tasting as bitter as poison and honey. Perhaps my story could be the one you had been looking for, a little motivation or an inspiration, to give you the raging courage to say the word “no.”