by Henna Khawja, M.S.W.
*Trigger warning: Following article includes the topic of sexual abuse and sexual assault
I have often found myself wondering, “Why don’t people love their children just the way they are?” Individuals spend a lot of time thinking about conceiving, trying to conceive, getting fertility tests, being pregnant, giving birth, fostering and/or adopting. The baby arrives and they are perfect – healthy and alive, soft and all theirs. At what point does that perfect child become “not enough?” Too dark, too fair. Too skinny, too curvy. Too lean, too muscular. Too feminine, too masculine. Hair product. Diets. Fair and lovely. Copious amounts of tutoring. Shaming. Neglect. Abuse.
In my eight years outside of university working as a Social Worker and Counsellor, I have seen pain and trauma in many, many forms. Women who have been physically and sexually abused by their husbands, children who have been molested by their family members, young men and women who have been forced into marriage at a young age – these individuals often come into counselling with one common denominator: they feel at fault, they feel wronged, but ultimately, they feel that they are to be blamed for their experience. They feel like helpless victims.
Now, as a mother to a beautiful baby girl, I wonder how my child – who I gracefully carried in my womb for thirty-seven and a half weeks – could ever be “not enough.” I want her to experience nothing but positivity in life – boundless self-love, unconditional love from family and friends, unbreakable self-confidence, admirable self-respect, compassionate faith, innate leadership skills, and merciful romantic love, when the time is right. I want my daughter to become a strong-willed, graceful, intelligent and opinionated woman – perhaps an academic, an artist, an athlete, a writer, perhaps a Social Worker like me, but most definitely whatever she defines as her calling. That said, why would I ever want her to feel like a victim? It is the role of a parent to uplift and empower their child, just as it is the role of the Counsellor to uplift and empower the folks that they work with.
On the topic of women’s rights, the debate of politically correct discourse is often relentless, often ignorant, sometimes inspiring, but rarely empowering. A common discussion within the topic of sexual abuse or assault is “Survivor” versus “Victim.” As an advocate for individuals who have experiences of violence in their lives, I am unapologetically an advocate for the former category. It is my strong opinion that any individual – male, female, cisgender, transgender or transitioning – who has had an act of violence committed against them is undoubtedly a Survivor (insert all of the positive emojis and Beyonce .gifs here).
From a theoretical perspective, there are many academic frameworks and counselling approaches that support using the phrase survivor – Strengths-Based Perspective, Client-Centered Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Anti-Oppressive Practice, Empowerment Theory – to name a few. When an individual has experienced a form of violence, they are made to feel powerless, betrayed, out of control and perhaps hopeless. Using a negative phrase such as “victim,” a word borrowed from Western legal discourse, only further disempowers them. In many cases of violence, individuals find themselves amongst the mess of the legal system – a process that inherently deems a person a victim to their circumstances. The legal process then proceeds to shame, demonize, question, doubt, slut-shame and discount the individual’s narrative, all in the name of due process and “justice.” Imagine going into such a lengthy, nuanced process already feeling like a victim? Now imagine beginning that same process by saying to yourself, “I am a Survivor.” Which scenario would be more gentle on your heart?
Survival for Survivors is diverse, complex and beautiful. It occurs on the daily in the most mundane of ways for the average person, but there have also been noteworthy, inspirational cases which are worth mentioning. When Anita Hill was repeatedly sexually harassed by her supervisor, who was a Judge at the Supreme Court of America, she survived by seeking justice and ultimately opened a nation-wide, if not international, discussion on workplace sexual harassment. Jane Doe was raped by the notorious and serial “Balcony Rapist,” and she survived by launching a lawsuit against the Toronto Police, arguing that investigators were negligent for not making the public aware of the rapist. These women not only sought justice and healing for themselves, but they went above and beyond by ensuring safety and protection for the general public. Male students at Brown University brought their campus sexual assaults to the attention of the administration, and they survived by advocating for themselves, raising awareness about male sexual assault, and bravely continuing their studies on the very campus where their traumas occurred. The good people at FORGE noticed that more than half of the attendees of their monthly meetings had disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused as children, so they promoted survivor-hood in various transgender communities by conducting nationwide research, organizing conferences and providing nationwide training to social service providers. When individuals from various faith communities disclosed that they had been sexually abused by a religious authority, they survived by seeking assistance, justice and ensuring protection for their fellow brothers and sisters in faith. Individuals who are differently abled experience sexual assault and confide in a trusted individual or reach out for help from a worker, they survive through self-advocacy by allowing themselves to ask for help.
As you see, survival comes in many different forms – it is not always graceful, or loud, or even visible to most. With this particular form of violence, survival can look like:
- Simply waking up in the morning
- Getting out of bed and starting your day
- Disclosing your experience to a loved one, a Counsellor, a Lawyer, a Teacher, or your own journal
- Learning and identifying your triggers
- Engaging in self care
- Seeking counselling
- Pursuing an order of protection
- Writing about your experience
- Returning to a place that reminds you of your experience, or alternatively, deciding to finally avoid said place
- Creating art about your experience
When working with Survivors, I want for them what I want for my daughter – to feel nothing but positivity; to heal and to mourn in a healthy manner, to feel supported, to be loved, to feel safe, to seek and hopefully obtain justice in light of the injustice(s) that occurred during their life’s journey. I want Survivors to know that they did not choose to be abused, that the abuse occurred to them. I want Survivors to know that they are not their circumstances, and with (a lot of) hard heart work, they can rise above their pain. I want Survivors to value their worth, and to undoubtedly know that they are “enough.” I want Survivors to know that they are not to be blamed for what happened to them. Individuals who have experienced child abuse, incest, sexual assault, molestation, forced marriage, rape, secret marriage, cyberbullying or have been forced to hide their identity in any way – know that you have survived your circumstances, you have not fallen victim to what was done to you, and I see you as a Survivor – even if you are not ready to do so yet.
Henna Khawja is a Registered Social Worker with years of training and practice from Toronto, Canada. Henna joined the HEART team in 2014 as Consultant and Facilitator. After completing her Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) at Ryerson University, Henna transitioned to the University of Toronto to pursue her Master in Social Work (M.S.W.) specializing in Social Justice and Diversity with a Collaborative Degree in South Asian Studies. Since graduating, Henna has focused her practice on both clinical counselling and grassroots advocacy in Toronto, Canada; Islamabad, Pakistani and Zanzibar, Tanzania with a variety of community-based and corporate organizations. Henna’s expertise thrive in working with women and youth on the topics of anti-oppression, crisis intervention, trauma therapy, expressive arts therapy, domestic violence, honour-related violence, forced marriage, interfaith dialogue and narrative therapy. You can email Henna at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @mskhawja.