Rough, lustful hands over the supple skin of a child, reaching prohibited areas with a myriad of inappropriate strokes and rubs and grips. A thief of innocence. A trespasser of sacred bodily territories.
A SEXUAL PREDATOR.
How does one deal with such violation, broken promises and mislead trust. You grief, you seek help, you suffer in silence, till you make peace with it and rebuild your very existence from the ashes of betrayal. In Malaysia, over 37% of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime but many of which goes unreported.
In an ode to narrating the torments of living through sexual assault and raising awareness on the mental heath implications, popular Malaysian photographer, Celes Gerard, narrates the story of sexual harassment through a photo series.
The photo series features real life sexual assault survivor, Sheela Pillai, who relived such dark times to share her story to the world. The three part photo series accounts the multiple occasions on which Sheela was sexually assaulted and how she regained her power.
PART 1 – “This is our little secret”
I was in kindergarten (5-6 years old), and he was in his late teens/early 20s. “Have you finished eating lunch?” he asked. “Yes anne (cousin brother)” I replied. “Next is nap time. Come on, go to the room and set yourself to sleep. I will check on you, if you didn’t, I will tell that you were naughty” he said.
He comes in the room after some time. He pulled his pants down and pushed my clothes up. He started kissing my body and finally, he rubbed his “thing” around my lips before putting it into my mouth. After a while, I felt something slimy down my throat and then around my mouth, sometimes if I were lucky, it would be all over my chest instead of in my mouth. I remember “it” being white and sticky, but I never knew what it was.
He would wipe it off me, and he would never fail to whisper this, “You are a good girl, this is our little secret, and if you tell anyone, you will be a bad girl and no one will want you”. I never told anyone. It was a secret after all, wasn’t it? This went on for 2 years of my kindergarten. I wasn’t frightened, I was confused but I didn’t retaliate because after all, it’s our little secret as he put it. I didn’t know whether it was good or bad so I never complained about it. I thought this was a form of love too because he never failed to say “You are my favourite one so I only have this secret with you”.
A couple of years later, my cousin brother who’s a year older to me started molesting me. “Wanna play a game, but you can’t tell anyone, they won’t understand. I will teach you” he would say. He would touch and rub all over me, and have me to do the same for him. This happened over a year and became another secret I held on to.
Part 2 – “Don’t Play Hard To Get”
I was 19. He was my childhood friend. We started hanging out again after ages. He picked me up to drop me to off to college after having a late lunch at his house. “Hey remember the place we use to hike when we were kids, they have a car trail to go up since the place is turning into housing development. Let’s go up there since you still have time for your class”, he said.
I didn’t think further, I agreed, blindly believing him. We drove up and parked the car, enjoying the view of the city from the top. Rain started pouring, he said it’s dangerous to drive down back and to wait till the rain stops.
That’s when it started. While we were talking, he started touching me. I pushed his hands away but he kept trying repeatedly more aggressively. At one point, he managed to pin me down and came over me, pushing my dress up. “Don’t play hard to get” he said and that just startled me. I couldn’t fight him off anymore, eventually giving in.
He sent me to college afterwards, and I pretended like nothing happened. I couldn’t sit through the class, and I walked out just sitting by the stairs. I couldn’t cry because all I felt was numb. What he said got to me, I started blaming myself for putting myself into a mess. By now I’ve gotten used to this and it is saddening to say so. It feels easier to pretend like life was normal so at least I feel like I should live for the next day.
Part 3: Reclaiming Her Power
Fear has turned into power, pain has turned into purpose; that’s who I am now. I am a child sexual abuse/rape survivor. I am a happier person now, the happiest I have ever been in my life actually. No more self-blaming, done with feeling victimised, and embracing that I have survived through all that so that I can be the change the society needs.
This is what I have to say now:
My hymen doesn’t define my womanhood. My virginity shouldn’t be a tick-off for marriage proposals. I am more than just a sexual being. My choice of lifestyle, my choice of clothing and my existence is not a reason for anyone to sexually abuse me. I will not be blamed for how the society has raised men to see women as sexual tools before anything else. It wasn’t my fault and it never will be. I didn’t ask for it when I was 5 years old, when I was 14, 19 or 22 years old. But I lived with the guilt because I was afraid of the society. I was afraid of the shame I would bring to my family because of what adult men did to me and I am done with it!
I still struggle with anxiety, there are still trigger points that gets to me. I stopped running from them, instead now I just find ways to overcome them. I make conscious choices to not allow those men to be within my life and surrounding. I made my stand because in the end, whether I like it or not, they are my demons to battle and I am ready to fight my grounds.
I hope survivors who read this find strength within them to live through their life and find happiness in them. I hope the rest of you play a role to be a better human in this world.