Our Shoulders Are Strong Enough

Shabnam Nadiya: Dear Teenager, when I myself was a teenager, I was sexually harassed by a younger boy—in my own house. I was at the age where one is awkward and gangly, and in those days I never felt at ease in my own skin. And even thinking about what was going on with my own body—the changing shape, the different sensations which I couldn’t identify or understand, the desire to touch myself in secret places and the feelings that created, the messy sprouting of hair where I’d never imagined hair could grow—made me uncomfortable and ashamed.

Nadiya 2It was summer vacation when it happened. The boy’s sister lived and worked in our household, and he was there with her.  He had the run of our household, which is how he figured out that if climbed up to the next door roof (the two houses were connected by a balcony and you had to climb a metal ladder to the roof), it gave him an unobstructed view into my mother’s bathroom where I showered.

The first time I noticed him I sprang to the corner of the bathroom to hide, I was so startled. He had been looking away at that moment, and I thought it was just a coincidence that he was there. I felt confused, and I dried myself—too rattled to wash off the soap—and quickly left. But then he was there the next day. And the next.

I felt shame. I felt afraid. Then I felt shame for being afraid. I went and told my mother. My mother said, That’s ridiculous. Stop making things up.

Perhaps she thought it was a coincidence that he was there when I showered every day. Perhaps she thought I was drawing attention to myself. Perhaps she thought I wasn’t being harmed and confronting this would bring shame and trouble where none was needed. I don’t know. I do know what she did was wrong.

I was being harmed.

I had no language to explain what was happening, why it was wrong, or how it was affecting me. And the one adult I asked for help let me down.

Shabnam NadiaI began a daily battle. I tried shutting the bathroom window. The glass was foggy, and I checked –from the spot where the boy stood on the roof—that you couldn’t see into the bathroom through the closed panel. But it was very hot weather and my parents wedged it open with a chunk of wood so hard that I couldn’t move it again. I started showering in the evenings, when I knew the boy had chores.

The trouble was I couldn’t see the roof in the dark and had no real way of knowing he wasn’t there. Somehow that made me even more scared. I began fearing other eyes there, watching me. I tried locking the access door to our roof. The bolt was positioned badly and made a ruckus when someone tried to open it. This worked. I perfected my showering technique where I could spring like lightning to the one corner of the bathroom, the tiny space to the right of the basin, which couldn’t be seen from the roof. A lot of times when I did this it wasn’t actually the boy, but someone else who wanted the door open or wanted to go to the joined balcony.

The odd thing was I would run into him, of course, during the day and our behavior toward each other was nothing out of the ordinary. There was nothing to suggest that I was scared of him—this boy who was smaller than I was, in age and stature.

All this was taking a toll on me. Among other things, I began not showering for days, which was unhygienic to say the least, and garnered me scorn from my family for being ‘dirty.’ I wasdirty; who wouldn’t be if they weren’t showering in a hot and humid summer?

But then I felt dirty at the very core of myself, and no amount of soap and water would scrub that away. Because what was happening was connected to my changing body and sexuality, and the hush-hush surrounding those changes made me feel like the ‘dirty’ meant something else: that I was dirty because I was somehow complicit in what felt like a violation, but I couldn’t explain why it felt that way, or even why it was a violation.

Because it was.

And my own mother didn’t believe me.

This episode taught me many things. That I wasn’t worth being believed. That the shame of violation was mine and not his. That I could trust no one.

These are lessons that took me a long while, a lifetime, to unlearn.

Dear Teenager,

Here is what I want to say to you: I believe YOU.

And I want you to believe me when I tell you: Nothing you ever do or say gives anyone the right to do anything with your body unless it is okay with you.

And I want you to know: there are many of us who have carried the burden of being disbelieved so that now our shoulders are strong enough to carry yours. We believe you when you tell us you said no and he didn’t listen. We believe you when you say you were too afraid to say no. We believe you when you say you told, and no one helped.

Twenty years after that summer, a man on a bus tried to grab my breast. I made him get off the bus by the side of the road with no bus stops for miles. It was a hot day too. By then I had learned: my body was my right.

I know that being blamed, being disbelieved, especially from people you trust, brings with it a special kind of darkness of heart that spills into everything you say and do and think and feel. But I want you to know you are not alone. Not even for the blink of an eye are you alone. There are many of us like you.

Stay strong.


Shabnam Nadiya

This write up is collected from the blog named


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