#MeToo and Child Sexual Abuse Survivors in the South Asian American Diaspora

On Oct. 5, 2017, the New York Times published an explosive report about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual offenses and systematic smothering of the victims’ voices. Ten days after the report which subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the #MeToo campaign—originally started by Tarana Burke and resurrected by actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet—spread across the world. In India, victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and physical violence raised their proverbial fists in solidarity. There were numerous stories of everyday harassment by men known or related to these brave women, as well as accounts of alleged harassment in academiacorporate world, and in the Mumbai film industry.

In Pakistan, the movement gained momentum after prominent celebrities shared their own stories of child sexual abuse in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl. And in Bangladesh, it brought out secrets that had gone unnoticed for far too long.

Vandita Morarka who works as a researcher for Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights (SAHR), a nonprofit working on justice for gender-based violence survivors in India, says #MeToo not only started a necessary dialog around issues of sexual harassment and abuse in India, it also empowered advocacy groups with an active repository of powerful stories to show the need and legitimacy of their work.

“At the micro level, I’ve seen #MeToo start conversations within families that would never discuss sexual assault otherwise,” Morarka says. “In schools and colleges, it led to students reaching out and discussing this more actively with their peers as well.”

In the South Asian diaspora in America, however, the enthusiasm to claim #MeToo has been limited.

Secretive Communities

Rani* says most survivors didn’t use #MeToo because they didn’t find enough support in the community to reassure them that the abuse wasn’t their fault.

She understands that sentiment because of her own story.

Growing up, 22-year-old Rani’s life out West was not so different from any other American millennial. She was an active student in elementary school and was part of the Homework Club, Girls on the Run Club, and Sports4Kids Club. She won awards from time to time and her parents, who had divorced when she was four, acknowledged her hard work.

Things changed when she entered 7th grade.

Rani was living with her mother and her second husband then. When her mother became pregnant, her stepfather started sexually abusing her. She was 12 at the time.

Rani couldn’t tell her mother because she was abused herself—at least verbally— by her husband and was financially dependent on him. He would also threaten Rani regularly.

“‘No one will marry you,’ and ‘no one wants a used girl’ were some of the things my stepdad would tell me,” Rani said.

But there was another fear that kept her quiet — fear of what her community would think of the situation.

“Opening up to the community is the biggest issue,” Rani said, “because there is no way of knowing who will be there to support you when you need it the most and that’s the hardest part of growing up [in an Indian-American community].”

Saima Husain, Deputy Director of California-based advocacy South Asian Network that challenges systems of oppression and inequality, says that for someone to speak or write about their abuse or experiences publicly, they have to acknowledge it at least to themselves or some trusted confidantes.

“I haven’t seen many people from the South Asian community claiming #MeToo, and there are a lot of young and progressive people on social media,” said Husain. Some of this caution on claiming the hashtag is because the abusers are often in the family, close to the family or belong to the same community as the survivors. It is also tangled up in the dual cultural identity of the 4.3 million strong South Asian diaspora and its status and place in the American fabric.

According to a 2015 study on family violence and child sexual abuse, “there is virtually no research on this highly stigmatized public health issue among the growing population of South Asians in the U.S.” Lack of such research and data stems from the perception that all Asian Americans are well-educated, high income, and well-regarded community. This “Model Minority” status actually worked as a deterrent for survivors to come out in greater numbers to claim #MeToo.

Fear of Backlash

South Asian diasporic communities in the US tend to be small and intimate where immigrants huddle together for cultural comfort. Familiar ecosystems and close-knit social circles are essential, especially for aging first-generation immigrants. Before speaking out—online or in real life—victims of child sexual abuse have to weigh the fear that their whole family could be ostracized.

24-year-old Jannath Ahmed was born and raised in Queens, New York, in a Bangladeshi Muslim community. Her father started sexually abusing her when she was 11. Even as a child, Ahmed said, she knew her mother had no power because she was financially dependent on her father. So Ahmed kept silent, and the abuse continued for four years. In 2014, her elder sister got a job, and the dynamics changed. She told her sister about the abuse.

Ahmed and her sister filed a police report, but the charges didn’t stick because the statute of limitations had expired. Her father went back to Bangladesh eventually.

Her family that stayed back in the U.S., however, paid a steep price for standing up to the community.

“My mother’s friends cut her off completely,” Ahmed said. “My father made up stories about my sister and me. He said that we partied, that we were Americanized and went around with boys and that we were lying. My own family members were telling me that no one would want to marry into my family now.”

Ahmed, who has a thriving career in advertising now and lives with her mother, never used #MeToo. She says she’d rather speak about her experience to someone one-on-one than put it on social media where the word can get to relatives or inquisitive community members.

Unlike Ahmed, her best friend—a victim of sexual abuse herself—remained quiet all her life and met a different fate.

Shame vs Individual’s Well-being

Jannath Ahmed and Samiha Khan knew each other since they were 11-years-old. When Ahmed told Khan about her abuse, Khan shared her own story.

Khan’s father was abusing her since she was 8-years-old. According to Ahmed, her friend was suffering from depression and had attempted to end her life more than once. Ahmed says she encouraged her to speak up several times but she didn’t have any support from her mother. Her abuse was kept a secret.

Samiha Khan jumped in front of a train and died in Nov. 2016. Even after her death, the focus of the community was on her mental fragility than the abuse that caused it.

“It wasn’t shared with any of the boys,” Jannath said. “Nobody reported it ever. And no one even thought to report it. It was more like a family problem than criminal behavior…People care more about not bringing shame to the family than the well-being of a person.”

Saima Husain of South Asian Network noted that shame is a sentiment shared by all survivors of child sexual abuse regardless of their background.

“Shame and believing that it was their own fault, which is part of the abuse, is a reason why children wait for a long time to speak about the abuse,” Husain said.

Sharing their experience on social media platforms, Husain added, depends on how much pushback the survivor believes they will experience or how well they feel their story will be received which is also tied into their history of help-seeking and how people have responded to them in the past.

Anti-immigrant sentiments and underreporting of child sexual abuse 

#MeToo movement’s tepid impact in the diaspora has another reason: Survivors often find themselves trapped between calling out the evils within the community and staying silent as the diaspora feels under siege in the current anti-immigrant political and social climate.

According to a recent report by Maryland-based South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a nonprofit that advocates for the civil rights of South Asians, there were 213 incidents of hate violence against those who identify or are perceived as South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Middle Eastern and Arabs in the year following the 2016 Presidential election.

Such anti-immigrant sentiment has collateral impact on victims of sexual assault and abuse. Saima Husain, who has been working with sexual assault victims for 20 years, says that even though there’s a current uptick in the anti-immigrant sentiment, victims have been hushed on this account for years—ever since 9/11.

“The community has this idea that there’s already a lot of negative perception and negative media coverage of the South Asian community and certain religious communities within the South Asian diaspora and that reporting child sexual abuse will add to it,” Husain said. “And so victims are blamed for bringing additional negative attention to the community.”

Even when they find the courage to talk about their abuse with authorities, an undercurrent of preconceived notions and even racism comes in the way.

“I had this experience of going to the police station to report about a [sexual assault] victim and there was an officer who said ‘Oh yeah, that happens a lot in your community’ as if gender-based violence happens only in South Asian communities,” Husain said.

Fears about immigration status and the legal system

Many first-generation immigrants, especially those who can’t afford attorneys, are unaware of the nuances of American law and the decision to report abuse poses more than one risk.

“There is a fear of legal repercussions that could affect their immigration status, especially if the survivor is from an already marginalized group. So in some ways, protecting the entire community does come in play,” said Sree Sinha, co-founder of South Asian Sexual Health Alliance, an online forum for South Asian youth focusing on stigmas around mental health, sexual health and sexual and gender identity.

With the Department of Homeland Security monitoring social media of even green card holders and naturalized citizens as well as their relatives now, using #MeToo to talk about their stories felt even more perilous for some.

A Need for a Cultural Movement

Vandita Morarka says India seems to have reached a point where women are saying that they won’t stand for sexual violence and abuse anymore.

“I’ve seen women without support, financial or otherwise, take up this fight just as much as those with the support,” she added.

The South Asian diaspora, on the other hand, is adamant about portraying itself as a model minority. In her 2010 survey of college going South Asians in the U.S., Dr. Shanta Nishi Kanukollu found that the more pride her respondents showed in their culture, the more they believed that family and community would take care of victims of child sexual abuse. Male respondents even displayed denial about the prevalence of such abuse in the diaspora.

“Our diaspora just doesn’t know how to respond to abuse survivors. There are a lot of calls for patience and prayers and they are told to ‘just get over it’ and that it wasn’t big a deal, and even that maybe the person really didn’t mean it,” Saima Husain says.

It’s perhaps for these reasons that #MeToo couldn’t find a solid foothold in the South Asian diaspora where the elders are firmly holding on to the cultural blindfolds of their native homelands, and the young are navigating the complex realities of being an American and a minority.

“If more people from the community were supporting each other, it would be different,” Ahmed said.


*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the survivor.


First published in NewsCentral24x7 on April 17, 2018:

#MeToo and Child Sexual Abuse Survivors in the South Asian American Diaspora


LGBT Muslim-Americans And Their Multi-Layered Struggle

“When I heard about the Orlando shooting, my first thought was ‘Oh my God! Who am I right now in this situation? Someone who looks like me and supposedly shares my faith just killed a bunch of people who are (like) me. Am I the perpetrator or the victim here,’ ” said Ramy Eletreby, a 35-year-old gay Muslim-American from Los Angeles.


Eletreby’s Muslim instinct to feel guilty on behalf of his faith and grief for the attack on his LGBT community is part and parcel of his multi-layered identity. These feelings are shared by LGBT Muslim-Americans across the country after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history unfolded in Orlando when Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old Afghan-American, opened fire in a gay bar killing 49 people and injuring 53.


For better or for worse, the Orlando mass shooting has brought the struggles of LGBT Muslim-Americans center stage. While organizations like Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) and Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) have been tirelessly picking up those who are bruised by their faith’s hard stance and choked by their country’s Islamophobic fumes, LGBT Muslim-Americans want their struggles to be heard widely.


Every Muslim I know is tired of repeating that acts of terror, such as Orlando, are not done in our name, nor in the spirit of our faith. Muslims feel enough remorse to take every sarcastic “yeah right Islam is a religion of peace” comment personally. After the shooting, my Facebook page was brimming with teary posts and comments of solidarity while I sat there staring at my blank screen with shame and guilt bubbling in my heart. The gunman was a Muslim. I am a Muslim. I can’t shake off that common factor. Then I thought of an Afghan-American LGBT activist Nemat Sadat that I had interviewed for a story last fall and wondered what he was going through.


“Orlando massacre really hit close to home. I resent the fact that Omar Mateen shares so much with me. We are both gay, Afghan, American, and from a Muslim background,” Sadat wrote to me after it was reported that Mateen was quite possibly a closeted gay.


“It could very well be that a combination of Omar Mateen’s bipolar disorder was aggravated by the indoctrination he received…coupled with the repression of not being able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith that triggered him to act out on his rage,” Sadat further added.


Omar Sarwar, Retreat Planning Co-Chair of Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), and a student at Columbia University explained why pro-LGBT laws in the U.S. do not help the case of LGBT Muslim-Americans.


“There are plenty of things which are legal for people of faith to engage in – consensual sex, alcohol, etc. but they are often afraid to act on those desires because of their conservative upbringing, which enshrouds these activities in an aura of shame. In the case of LGBT Muslims, they just don’t have to contend with their internalized shame, but sometimes also with threats to their physical safety. Many are simply not ready to tell their parents or immediate families because they fear strong negative judgment or social exile,” Sarwar wrote to me.


Sadat had told me in a previous interview how out of fear of social expulsion in his hometown Irvine, California, he was ready to lead a heterosexual life. He had even dated a woman for 15 months. But when he felt the first flutters of courage to accept his sexuality while studying at Harvard and then at Columbia, his Muslim identity created a roadblock.


“The minute people knew about my Muslim background, that was it, it was a conversation killer.  Nobody wanted to know anything else,” Sadat had said.


Sadat said he understood the reasons behind this pattern.


“A lot of LGBT people have faced a lifetime of persecution and repression,” Sadat had said to me.  “The last thing they need is to be associated with someone who is a double or triple minority. It’s more baggage they don’t want to deal with.”


Like many LGBT Muslim-Americans, Sadat faced homophobia from his own family and faith (his father used to call him “kuni” a derogatory word for gay) when he was growing up and Islamophobia outside his community.


“As a minority within a minority, I struggled to integrate into mainstream society, especially in a post-9/11 world when my gay, Afghan, American, and Muslim identities clashed and it was hard for me to reconcile between creating a meaningful life,” Sadat wrote to me.


Omar Sarwar knew instantly that the Orlando shooting would be used as a political tool. For those who take a tragedy and turn it into fear, Orlando massacre was nothing but yet another opportunity to marginalize a whole sect of American population.


“My first thought was that the shooting was going to provide ample fodder for the Right in America to continue their racist, Islamophobic saber-rattling,” Sarwar wrote to me.


Within hours of the Orlando shooting, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump literally congratulated himself as he tweeted, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”


Trump in his Atlanta rally on Wednesday reiterated his stance to close U.S. borders to Muslim “on a temporary basis at least.”


Aaminah Shakur a queer Muslim artist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, has battled hard and long for her rights in her local community and mosque.


“I am not giving up being a Muslim yet, mainly to keep challenging Islamophobia and people’s limited definition of who can call themselves a Muslim.”




First published in Huffingtonpost.com on June 16, 2016:


Malala Yousafzai – A Polarizing Figure in Pakistani Media


On Feb. 7, 2016, Dr. Danish, the host of Pakistan’s popular Urdu-language talk show “Ye Sawal Hai” (The Question is), was in full shouting form.

“This is the photograph of Waleed Khan who took eight bullets,” he yelled, pointing at the split screen flashing the photographs of a 14-year-old boy alongside Malala Yousafzai. Khan is a survivor of the Pakistani Taliban’s Dec. 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. He was in the headlines for his ambitions to join the army to avenge his friends.

“And this,” he screamed, “is the photograph of Malala Yousafzai, who took one bullet and is living out of the country, and her account has $68 billion.”

Dr. Danish’s rant opened an hour-long discussion of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and her father, who were labeled “traitor” and “kafir” (a derogatory term for non-believers) multiple times by his three talk show guests. The group implied Malala was an agent of Pakistan’s enemies, who were using her to attack Islam and the Pakistani military

That part of the story is not unusual. Though Malala enjoys widespread admiration around the world, within Pakistan she is a divisive figure – revered by some, but aggressively targeted by others.

What is unusual was the reaction of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Shortly after the broadcast, the agency censured ARY News network – which airs Ye Sawal Hai, one of the top five Urdu-language talk shows, according to Gallup media research. The charge was “hate speech.”

“The host and guests used such words about Malala Yousafzai and her family that undoubtedly fall under hate speech and use of such words are strictly banned under the law and constitution,” PEMRA’s notice said.

“Accusations of blasphemy could endanger lives,” PEMRA further noted.

The strong language and formal action against ARY News were surprising moves by an agency that has traditionally reserved such censure orders for media attacks on the Pakistan army. For example, the license of Geo News, Pakistan’s leading television channel was suspended in 2014 for 15 days with a hefty fine for charges of defaming the army and Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

So what would explain an aggressive new approach from PEMRA to protect Malala, a controversial figure within Pakistan?

Usman Ghani, a blogger and engineer, suggests the answer lies in the October appointment of a new chief, Absar Alam, by PEMRA President Mamnoon Hussain on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recommendation.

Alam has deep ties to the current ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

“That may be one of the reasons for PEMRA’s aggressiveness,” Ghani said, in an email interview from Lahore. “The other probable reason is Pak government’s decision to move forward with its war against terror.”

The new anti-terror effort, said Ghani, has made PML-N and the Pakistani military more aggressive in opposing “any hate speech or action in media that might help the terrorists.”

Will it matter? 

PEMRA’s action may have been bold, but it’s not clear it will make much difference.

Soon after the censured broadcast, “Dr. Danish tweeted Malala’s name with Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen – controversial names in Pakistan because of their books and subject of hatred for the masses,” said Ghani. “It is an effective way of suggesting that Malala is as controversial as they are.”

The tweet also indicated that Dr. Danish – with 200,000 followers on Twitter — was unfazed by the PEMRA censure, said Ghani.

Ghani said public opinions about Malala reflect public anger at what is seen at western interventionism in Pakistan.

“The average people are not religious fanatics. They watch Hollywood movies and have mild ideology. But they hate anyone who is recognized by the West,” he said. “The anti-Malala sentiment is piggybacking on this anti-West sentiment.”

Cyril Almeida, a journalist at the leading English-language newspaper Dawn, said that many Pakistanis also feel resentful of the shame that the Taliban attack on Malala, and the subsequent international media coverage, brought to the country.

“There is also envy among the people,” Almeida said. “She got shot and got out, while most of the countrymen are stuck with their children in a situation where every day brings the possibility of death.”

Roots of polarization

The complex opinions about Malala have been reflected in Pakistani media coverage of her ever since a Taliban gunman shot her in 2012 as she was riding a bus home from a school exam.

Pakistani liberals were horrified, but some Pakistanis never believed the attack even took place, said Raza Ahmad Rumi, a columnist and policy analyst who was attacked by a Taliban affiliate in 2014 and now lives in upstate New York.

“There was a third category that believed that she was working as a pawn or a spy for the West, because she had met [U.S.] Ambassador Richard Holbrooke,” Rumi said in a phone interview.

Almeida, the Dawn journalist, said that the media divisions are far more complex than liberal versus conservative, or English-language versus Urdu media. “Even in the same news organizations, whether Urdu or English, some speak for her and some against her,” he said.


For instance, when Malala received honorary citizenship from Bethlehem, a Palestinian town in the West Bank in January, photographs of Malala and her father appeared in some news publications like Express News Pakistan and Channel 24 News, reporting that she is now a British citizen — which was not true. Even when it became clear that the honorary passports (with similar cover colors of a British passport) that Malala and her father had received were not British, none of these reports were corrected and led to a fresh wave of vitriol on social media, which has become a vicious echo of mainstream media.


Effects of Media Polarization

“One can’t actually divide opinions about Malala by language [of the media], class or even by type of leader because it is defying all categorization,” said Bilal Lakhani, a columnist forExpress Tribune, an English-language daily newspaper.

“I am currently focusing a lot of my writing on education and personally I am a big fan of Malala,” said Lakhani. “But I have stopped mentioning her in my articles. My message is getting crowded out due to her polarized standing in society.”




First published in globalnewsroom.org on March 15, 2016:

Malala Yousafzai – A polarizing figure in Pakistani Media