A rape victim relates her first-person account and her healing
By Stephanie Bushra Khan
I used to live in a small, rundown apartment while studying art in Massachusetts. One night I was expecting a friend to come to visit. I heard a knock and opened my door — but it wasn’t her.
Instead, a stranger forced his way into my living room. I tried to reason with him, but then I saw the knives on my kitchen counter. Afraid that he would use one against me, I gave in. He raped me.
My roommate took me to the hospital that night and called the police. I told them what had happened, reliving every excruciating detail of my trauma. The next day, someone set my apartment on fire. I assumed it was him.
That night, I lost my apartment, my artwork, and my sense of self. But worst of all, I lost my connection with, and trust in, God. I felt He was no longer there for me.
Rape and sexual abuse break a person’s core, and their relationship with God. This type of intense trauma clouds their understanding of trust and love on both the physical and spiritual levels. As a victim, they may even start to abuse their own bodies as a way of responding to what has been taken from them.
Rape survivors feel as if the world is no longer a safe place, and that there is no one to protect them against harm. There is no comfort, joy or spiritual awaking. What’s left is fear, says Hira Khanzada, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist at the Khalil Center.
But experts such as Khanzada also believe there is a way back to God through therapy and spiritual support.
I wasn’t Muslim at the time of my attack, but I had this innate belief in the One God. At a young age, I would walk through the tall New England woods in awe of His creation. He was my comfort, my protector and my solace.
I met my future husband a few months after the rape. I didn’t know it at the time, but he would be one of the reasons that I survived, the answer to my prayers. He protected me, helped me pay for my education and taught me how to take care of myself. I would learn to cook and take care of him as he studied.
For the first time in my life, I had someone who truly cared for me, and guided me. I converted before my marriage. Islam gave me a code to live by, something I desperately needed. I had grown up in a dysfunctional family and was living a bohemian lifestyle. Taking care of my children and husband gave me stability and showed me how to be responsible.
But within a few months of marriage, I started to feel a great deal of shame, even though I understood that my conversion had wiped my slate clean. Nevertheless, I still blamed myself. Praying was difficult. Even just standing on the prayer rug made me feel dirty. I couldn’t wear the hijab because I saw it as a sign of purity, a quality that I did not possess. Praying at the mosque with friends made me feel like a hypocrite
I was wearing a mask. I was this perfect Muslim mother — involved with my mosque, taking my children to Sunday school, the beautiful Bengali wife cooking and maintaining a household, teaching children about Islam and helping with fundraisers. But inside I was falling apart. No one knew the battle being waged in my core.
Many victims of sexual abuse and rape, especially women, stop praying and may even act out sexually. They abuse their bodies, blame God in silence and sink under the weight of their own anger and guilt of being broken, and used. These women view hijab as a reminder of what they can never have — a feeling of purity. How could I reconcile my faith with what had happened to me in the past?
Professionals who work with Muslim sexual abuse victims say that after such an attack, survivors find it very difficult to process their relationship with God. This is more the case with women and children than it is with male victims. Some women give up on religion altogether, said Noha Alshugari, an Orange County, Calif.-based licensed marriage and family therapist and co-author of “Positive Parenting in the Muslim Home” (2017).
I eventually broke down, because my mind could not bear the dichotomy of my inner and outer selves. How could I protect my children, and give my daughter words of comfort when I had none for myself? How could I convince them of a God who, I believed, had forsaken me? So, I dissociated from my environment.
A survivor will often feel rage toward the perpetrator or the Creator, according to Sakeena Abdul Raheem, a San Francisco Bay Area associate professional clinical counselor. The victim will socially isolate herself and develop PTSD, depression and anxiety.
The Way Back to God
To recover, according to Suhail Mullah (director, the Khalil Center, Los Angeles), survivors have to repair their relationship with God. This difficult process takes deliberate work on multiple levels. Survivors must first process what has happened and understand that it was not their fault. This type of recovery should be done in a therapeutic environment.
It took me 33 years of therapy and several breakdowns before I learned to trust God again, to speak with Him. One of the steps was coming to terms with my body. When I began to heal, I began to look after myself.
Coming back to prayer was harder. The realization that I wasn’t angry at God but felt worthless before Him came to me gradually. My faith wavered in the meantime, just like a child taking its first steps and constantly falling and getting back up again.
Victims need to find a way to fully embrace the reality that bad things happen to good people, and that life is a struggle. Being raped is horrific, but one must learn both how to trust God again and to let go. To do this, survivors have to be reintroduced to God. I felt empathy with women from war-torn countries where rape is used as a weapon, an act against humanity.
Engaging in spirituality can be beneficial. Those who have been violated have to regain their autonomy. They must take back their power and, over time, begin to rely on the Creator, said Abdul Raheem.
I Am a Survivor. I Am Still Alive.
Therapy helps reframe how to engage with our belief in God. My therapist, a devout Christian man, taught me how to find self-worth and love in myself by overcoming my anger. It was the feeling of worthlessness that separated me from God, this anger that had kept me from leading a normal life. There were even times I no longer wanted to live. My therapist reconnected me with God the same way I did as a child walking in the New England woods — I recognized the Oneness of God that I saw there.
Therapy also helps us engage with difficult questions, such as “Why don’t I like God?” These conversations can help us be more compassionate to ourselves and others. By analyzing the good that came from my broken relationship with God, I rebuilt my reliance on Him and accepted what had happened and that it wasn’t my fault. I even started to see my attacker as human. All people are born innocent, until something happens to make them hurt others.
“What is Allah trying to teach you in this lesson? It’s all from Allah. He is in control of all,” said Abdul Raheem. Beauty is often paired with ugliness, and hardship with ease. After it rains, the sun shines and the roses bloom. Rain itself is a means of purification.
I grew to care for myself, to love myself. I even forgave my rapist. My love for God grew deeper. I find myself thinking about Him every moment of the day and being grateful for my existence. I feel more connected with all living creation, and try to practice Islam as much as I can when I feel well enough to do so. But there are days when I don’t. I have my family, and for that I am grateful.
I have come to realize just how much I love God through this process, even though I questioned whether He loved me. In Farid ud-Din Attar’s “Conference of Birds,” I learned that we may be united with God through our struggles to reach Him.
Stephenie Bushra Khan originally from Winchendon, Mass., is a professional artist poet and writer mostly published in Islamic magazines and newspapers.