by Aisha Ali
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, rape
Two weeks ago, I switched on my phone after having it off all night and a series of text messages immediately came through. One was notification that my friend had tried to call me several times. Then frantic texts.
“Are you awake? I need to talk to you.”
“Please call me as soon as you switch on your phone. I’m in a terrible state.”
“Something terrible happened last night, I need you.”
My hands started shaking as I tried to compose a message to her.
“Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Are you OK?”
Then I called her. But I knew. I already knew what she was going to tell me. I sent a quick prayer. Please let it not be bad.
A man had attempted to force himself on her. He found her alone after her friend had gone to get something from the car and pushed himself on her. He lifted her top and violently groped her breasts while trying to kiss her. She fought him until finally he left, laughing at her. The whole time he was doing this he kept telling her “just give it to me”. When her friend came back and confronted the guy, he told her with a sneer “You’re alright, aren’t you? I didn’t do anything.”
She left that establishment as fast as possible and all she could think of was going home. I imagine, she wanted to lock herself in the only place she could feel safe.
She did not report the incident.
Several years ago, on a holiday trip sponsored by a company I used to work for, my boss sent one of my colleagues to give me some documents to take to his room. When I got there he grabbed me and started kissing and groping me. He tried to remove my clothes. I told him to stop several times until he finally let go of me.
“Why are you being so difficult?” he asked me. “Fine, then go.”
He was angry.
He was not the only man who had tried to force himself on me. There was the time a ‘friend’ tried to force himself on me and another friend had to intervene. There were also other men who felt like they could just cop a feel, just a small touch of my body, without my consent. Some I’ve fought, with words mostly. Majority of time I went home and cried it away.
I have never reported any of them.
Two weeks ago, Kenyan Twitter was lit on fire when Dr. Wambui Mwangi accused writer Tony Mochama of sexually assaulting Shailja Patel at a gathering in her house on the same day my friend was assaulted.
Initially, Shailja had chosen to remain anonymous and not go to the police. Through his blog, Keguro Macharia asked for collective community accountability. The first question a lot of people asked was if she reported the incident. And then when they found out that she didn’t report it, they asked why she didn’t. If she really wanted justice, she should report.
Later in the week, Shailja reported the incident to police.
I have been thinking about what the question “Did you report?” means for a person who has been sexually assaulted. I don’t like asking victims this question until they tell me what they want to do next. I feel there’s an underlying message that’s being sent when this question is asked. Reporting gives the accusation validity. Reporting makes it true. Because why wouldn’t you report if it were true?
Victims of sexual assault react differently. Some choose to come out gun blazing. Some withdraw into themselves and deal with the trauma. But the nature of sexual crimes is that they are about power and control.
The perpetrators aim to show the victims that they can take away control of their bodies at any time they feel like it. They will touch you when they choose, they will grope you when the choose and they will rape you when they choose. The most overpowering feeling I got when I was assaulted was helplessness. There was nothing I could do to stop him from doing whatever he wanted. And the only way a victim can try to get their life back is by being in control of what happens next. Every action thereafter should centre them. Asking a sexual assault victim “Did you report?” first makes me very uncomfortable.
This question informs the victim what they should do. It tells them what they need to do before they get our response. It also tells them that the only way their assault matters is if they reported it. This question skips everything the victim has been through; their state of mind, the trauma they are going through, and jumps straight to what we want to be done. This question is more about us than the sexually assaulted. It binds our actions and our support to the police report, and not the victim’s experience.
My friend and I never reported our assaults. Many women for various reasons never do. Did we get assaulted? Is our word valid? Are we allowed to talk about it?
The history of sexual violations on women is marked by women being shamed into silence.
Women were never believed, and they were made to feel it was their fault they were sexually assaulted. Yes, a lot has changed. A lot of people have worked hard to improve this. But women are still made to feel like it’s their fault. We are now silencing them by saying we’ll only listen to them if they report. And that unless they report, their experience, their word, isn’t valid. Never mind that even when they report, they still get silenced in other ways.
Yes, I know that the only way we have to make sure that perpetrators are prosecuted and some semblance of justice is served is by reporting. But the question “Did you report?” as the first thing a victim is asked does not address what the victim has just gone through. It does not deal with the violation. It does not allow the sexual assault victim control of what happens next. Reporting will only help a victim if they are allowed to make this decision. And only by being allowed to take back control will a victim start reclaiming what was taken from them.
So maybe instead of asking victims of sexual assault “Did you report?” we need to ask them “What do you want to do?”
Let’s give them back control.
Aisha Ali is a writer. Follow her on Twitter @bintiM