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I recently wrote an article about cultural stigma around mental illness, where I wrote about M, a 21-year-old young lady from Kebbi state in northern Nigeria. In her own words, M spent her late kindergarten years running from sexual assaults, her early teenage years suffering from Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and her late teenage years dealing with trauma induced mental illnesses including anxiety disorder, severe depression, bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD). “I can’t vividly remember what happened in my life before the age of 13,” she told me. “My therapist says it’s because I blocked my memory from remembering what ever has happened in my life. She says it’s a coping mechanism.”
From the things she can recall, M describes finding her half-sister and her (half-sister’s) male cousin, W, “in a compromising situation” at the age of 8. She screamed which resorted to him closing her mouth and slapping her; after which he told her: “This is halal. Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it to gain Allah’s pleasure. It’s a loved practice by Allah, one of the easy ways to get to paradise.” A few days later, she asked her Islamic teacher about it; he hit her with a cane and asked her to not engage in such a conversation ever again: “shh,” he said. “Good girls don’t talk about that.” Because of this reaction, M grew up believing that not only were sexual relations acts of worship, but was sexual assault.
Epistemic violence is the root of many problems; once our knowledge has been manipulated, our actions are automatically compromised. In M’s story, the misinterpretation of Islam was used to coerce her into engaging in sexual relations; she eventually stopped resisting because she saw it as an act of religion, as a way to please God and enter paradise. Days after the conversation, she remembers W sneaking into her toilet and touching her inappropriately. He hit and beat her and inserted stones and papers into her crotch; she shouted but to no avail. Subconscious and weak, she laid on the floor until her mother and half-sister found her. As punishment, she was beaten for two hours – 40 strokes of cane and slapped 20 times – with her mother and half-sister calling her a whore. She was only 8 years old.
So often, misconstrued or deliberate manipulation of religion is used to subjugate and undermine other people’s realities, especially women. If it’s not M being convinced that sexual assault is a religious doctrine, it’s a lady being told that she asked to be raped because she was not wearing the Hijab. In truth, these ideas perpetuate the stereotype that religion is unkind to women, that Islam is a misogynist religion, even though that is not at all the case. The only way we can begin to dismantle these stereotypes is by educating ourselves and the people around us; it is by spreading the right information.
I saw a tweet a couple of days ago that related the low quality of education to culture. It says: “In Nigeria, a curious child is a disobedient child. A child that questions a higher authority is disrespectful. It’s not just the educational system that’s the problem. Power dynamics at play in the child’s home is also a huge problem.” Everything starts and ends with culture. We can’t even begin to change our educational system – be it formal or informal – if we don’t encourage children to be curious, to question what they’re being told even if the source of the information is a much older person, a parent, a guardian or an older sibling. In M’s case, sexual assault was the norm and she accepted that, thinking it was an act of religion. When she tried asking questions, she was silenced instead of encouraged. But perhaps – just perhaps – the abuse wouldn’t have been normalized if she had been allowed to ask questions, if her curiosity had been accommodated; and perhaps, it would have saved her from trauma induced mental illnesses.