Monday, May 31, 2010

Article in Now Lebanon: From domestic abuse to rape: The story of Nahla

By: Hayeon Lee
At the age of 42, Nahla (whose name has been changed to conceal her identity) has been through a lot. The lawyer, who comes from a conservative Christian family, grew up being abused, along with her five sisters and three brothers, by a violent father.

When she was younger, Nahla says, she did not know that what she was experiencing was violence, and that the strict obedience enforced by her father shaped how she dealt with the later brutality – three attempted rapes – against her.

While the cabinet’s decision on Tuesday criminalizing domestic violence might help women like Nahla to be aware of their right to a peaceful life, there is a deep-rooted way of thinking that must also be overcome if violence against women is to disappear in this country.

Nahla says her father used to always tell her, “A woman’s honor is between her legs. If the girl loses her honor, it means I can kill her, cut her in pieces and bury her.” He did not stop with verbal threats either; whenever Nahla spoke with a male neighbor or wore a skirt above her knees, for example, he would beat her. Even after her father died, her brothers took on his role – with the approval of Nahla’s mother – and would habitually beat their sisters.

Nevertheless, Nahla tried to remain strong and hopeful. “My peace was only in praying,” she told NOW Lebanon and said she even considered for a while becoming a nun.

But the trauma did not end with her childhood, as on three separate occasions, Nahla was a victim of attempted rape.

The first time it happened was on Nahla’s second date with a neighbor in 1998. He invited her up to watch a World Cup game. Knowing that he lived with his family, she accepted, but when she realized that he was the only one home and was trying to lure her into his bedroom, she refused. “In one second, he took me in his arms and bit me [on my breast] in a violent way. All his teeth were in my flesh and I was bleeding. He did this to make me submit to him,” she said. She escaped when his sister rang the interphone before he could penetrate her. “And at the time, I was very weak to do [anything] against [the neighbor] because I have three brothers who are very traditional. They wouldn’t understand,” Nahla said. For over a decade, she only told a few people she trusted what had happened, but even to this day, she sees the neighbor on the streets. “He’s a criminal. Soon, I will sue him. Now I am strong and I can do this, but not at the time,” she said.

The second instance was seven years ago, when Nahla and a screenwriter met at Starbuck’s in Achrafieh with a group of friends. The two hit it off and talked until midnight, when the man asked Nahla for a ride home. Nahla drove him to his house, but when she refused to go upstairs for a cup of tea once they arrived, he started banging her head on the steering wheel and told her to get out of the car. He forced her to perform oral sex on him before he let her go. She only secretly told a few people this time, again, because she was afraid of her brothers.

The third time happened last year on Christmas day, when Nahla was jogging in a small park next to her house. A Syrian man in his 20s held a knife to her back and took her toward a small valley near the park. Fortunately, she was having her period, and the man did not penetrate her, as menstruation is considered “impure”. This time, she did report the incident to her family right away. “I told my family, ‘I want you to help me. This can happen to you or your child.’ My brothers went to the police station with me and were very nervous because now, they are thinking about their children. They don’t project on me,” she said.

While Nahla has slowly begun to come to terms with her past, there is still society to deal with. Many men, she says, are raised to see women as lesser human beings to simply control and dominate, so that there is a lack of respect. “Even girls sometimes judge me because I’ve been raped. They said, ‘It’s your clothes,’ because these girls are taught that girls must not be open-minded; they learn to be ‘good girls.’ And the other girls who are not following the rules are ‘bad girls’,” she said. “Some of my ex-girlfriends, they judge me because they think I am behind the rapes.”

Nahla says that growing up with violence made her blame herself for what happened. “All the time I have been blaming myself. I suffered for 10 years. I am always choosing the wrong men. Too many men tried to rape me. I felt I was doing the wrong things for 10 years,” Nahla says. But through psychotherapy, she hopes to stop the vicious cycle of self-blame. “[My psychotherapist] said that I’m reacting to my father’s education. I am not choosing. I’m reacting to my childhood.” And by finding a “deep, deep cure” for her psychological wounds, Nahla is sure that she will find her way.

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