By Sahar Pirzada
I am sitting on an airport chair at 7:45am in Northern California. This is the 5th time I have had to travel in the span of a month. My heart is filled with all sorts of mixed emotions. I am tired. Actually not tired, but exhausted in every sense of the word, yet there is still a small bulb of energy pulsing in my heart that is keeping me going. I’ve had a knot in my chest since Wednesday and I’m waiting for an hour to myself where I can cry and release the pressure.
Yesterday, I facilitated a community forum about sexual violence for the Muslim community at a college campus. A female Muslim student of 23 years old bravely shared her story of being sexually and emotionally abused by her close friend for the span of 6 months. She shared the details, the raw emotions, the thoughts running through her head and shared her pain with a room of 100 community members in the most beautiful, vulnerable and humble way. She was not there for herself, she was there for them. She was there because her love for her community drove her to share herself with them so she could change the culture of victim-blaming, to change the cultural stigma around abuse and to uplift the story of her abuse and the stories of the 4 survivors before her who had suffered in silence at the hand of her abuser. As she spoke, I sat quietly next to her and held on to her strength with all its delicate power resonating through the room.
I sat there, yesterday, in admiration of her and of the community leaders who had made the forum a possibility. Today, I continue to marvel at how timely these young people mobilized around this issue. Earlier last week, on Wednesday one of my students called me to share this survivor’s story with me. The student wanted to support her friend in whatever way possible and so she reached out to me and asked for help. What am I currently noticing about the connection between my spiritual identity and organizing? I am noticing that I now have a purpose. That I now have influence. That I now have power to change my faith community to practice the values at the core of our religion – mercy, justice and love. After a 7 day workweek, I eagerly hopped on plane once again on Sunday evening to join the student leaders who I pray will lead my community to greatness some day. I met the survivor and we shared our stories and sat in peaceful discomfort on the grassy lawn of the college campus. We were joined by the organizers of the forum at a cafe where we mapped out the agenda: renewal of intentions, safe space guidelines, video of a survivor story, definitions, types of abuse, reasons why survivors don’t report, reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships, responding as individuals and institutions in a victim-centric way, resources and, of course, the survivor’s truth. We closed the event off with a powerful supplication. A brother wept as he asked God to open our eyes and hearts. With a stream of tears rolling down his cheek he prayed that the community show up when needed and support survivors. He asked for forgiveness from his Lord for being blind and not showing up sooner. We sat in silent prayer for another minute, we all took a deep breath and left the space realizing what we just did as a community is just the beginning.
Insha Allah (God-willing).
Sahar Pirzada is HEART Women & Girls‘ Lead Trainer on the West Coast. She actively works to promote sexual health and well-being, and advocates for victim-centric approaches and information for all sexual assault survivors.