Thursday, 28 March 2019

Cults and Shame: A short memoir.

It's been a while since I put pen to paper. But this morning I woke up with the urge to write. As if I knew I had something important to say. Over the last few months, I have been taking a break, from work, from structure, from life. In this space, my psyche decided that it was time I come to terms with a few things. And in this process there is one word that sticks out. SHAME.

Before I get to what it is I have so much shame over, I want to discuss a little bit of what shame does to a person. To me, shame is an intense form of embarrassment with an overarching need to hide parts of oneself due to fear. Fear of being judged, being perceived as weak, and fear of being socially rejected and shunned.

I have been sitting with a lot of shame recently, and found myself needing to use social crutches such as alcohol and cigarettes to drown the shame. Then, I realised, that these coping mechanisms (surprise, surprise) only serve to intensify it.

So here, I am, sitting down behind my computer, trying to confront it. I love that I write under the skin-thin"pseudonym". It gives me a false sense of safety. I find solace in it, even though I know whoever will read this post will know exactly who I am. Anyhow, tucked under the comfy blanket of indoafrikanqueen, here goes:

Most people who know me have heard a standard narrative of my life. I grew up in "Joburg", am a child of divorced parents, and attended a muslim "boarding school". This isn't entirely true. Let me elaborate. I lied.

This is the truth. When I was seven a strange man came to the house of my great aunt that my sister, my dad and I lived in. He whisked my sister and I away for the December holidays to a house in Rynsoord, a little Benoni suburb. And we never left (aside for holidays) for ten years. This house, was in fact a children's home. And housed, what I now realised, was nothing short of a Muslim cult.

I have never been able to admit this to anyone. I was ashamed. I am ashamed. When I got to UCT everyone was so elite and privileged that I couldn't bear that they knew the truth of my existence. Now, everyone is working, has jobs, and the people I know are arguably even more elite so that admitting where I am from entails risking all the social capital I have built for myself over the years.

If you're still reading, which you may not be, let me tell you a little about the home I grew up in now. This cult. It was for underprivileged girls from muslim homes, funded by the Muslim community and run by a muslim couple from Benoni.

On the surface the home looked beautiful. Tucked away in a neat suburb on any old suburb road next to ordinary people in ordinary houses. But on the inside things were not so.

To start, we had to wake up at 5 a.m to pray, we had to go to Muslim school, pray at school. Come home by bus and sit in extra-curricula madressah classes, then pray again, eat, pray again, do homework, pray again and go to bed. We weren't allowed to read after 9 p.m at night. We weren't allowed to play outside, we weren't allowed to see outside the gates of the premises - they were sheathed in canvases of zinc. I was seven when I arrived and I brought a few of my barbie dolls with me - cute little cheap things covered in crocheted dresses picked up at a second hand store in Boksburg - these were confiscated.

As a child you have no concept of time. I don't know how the first four to five years passed but I remember sneakily playing games with girls my age, by building forts under beds, and sneakily reading in the light that filtered through from the street after 9. One afternoon we played after classes and I fell asleep under the bed, I missed evening prayers and was awoken by the housemaster dragging me out from under the bed and bestowing a fat full-palm smack on my face. I never played again.

Nonetheless, I was a good student and spoiler alert, this turned out to be my saving grace. My coping mechanism. To this end, I got an award in grade three, that was made specially for me, because my reading capacity was that of a grade eight learner. This award was not standard.  I mastered the Quraan. There was a period I thought I would memorise the whole thing and become a Hafizah.

The home was lonely. I was just a number. One of eighty girls, between six and nineteen and was given no emotional support at all. My dad was abusive, and an alcoholic when I was admitted to the home. My mum was not in the picture. Absent.

I remember getting sick around the age of nine, and suffering with night sweats, fever and the shakes. I just got up and went to school. I felt so ill but didn't know that I was. This continued to when I started menstruating, I suffered with extreme cramps and not once took a painkiller for it. I think the first time I realised I could remedy my pain with a painkiller was when a girl at school gave me one in grade 11, six years after I started menstruating, and it worked miracles.

The shame is all encompassing.  I was completely under-nourished and had to bury my pride and ask the girls at school who were not from the home for lunch because I was so hungry. I developed an eating disorder, constantly deprived of food. And the food we did get was of such a poor quality, it was barely edible. The meat would often be purple and the rice would be stodgy. A lot of the time I would be starving but just could not eat.

Music was forbidden as were movies. The punishment in the afterlife for listening to music would be hot lead being poured down your ears. Your grave would close in on you to the point that your ribs would intertwine.

As you would expect, a lot of the girls at the madressah behaved recklessly. They were naughty. We were neglected and often times verbally abused. At the age of nine I got told that I had too much pride and had to be "put in my place". I was told my mother is a whore, and that she forgot about me. I was told that I thought too much of myself in my teen years, because I was light-skinned. My friend Aisha, was told that her mother was in jail because she was caught playing outside at dusk when she should have been praying.

There was no solace. I was deeply distressed and depressed but did not know it. My parents were irresponsible. At the start of the school holidays, I would sit at a window upstairs and wait for my dad to pick me up. He wouldn't show up until two or three days later. And if I didn't have my report (sometimes the school did not release it) he would beat me.

I knew nothing of the internet. I did all my school assignments by encyclopedia. Many of the pages were ripped out or scribbled on. Still, in grade twelve, I wrote a history essay that one of the heads of department in the local department of education said was one of the best history essays they ever read.

My teachers saved me. I was in flight or flight. All I had was my brain and by some divine measure I knew it. I threw myself into my books. The teachers at school were sub-par. My mathematical foundation was exceptionally weak, so weak that my maths teacher advised me to do standard grade maths. I refused. He saw my potential eventually and gave me free after school tuition to help me get through. I just missed an A at the end of matric. I wish I could track him down now and tell him that I have two master's degrees with distinction, one in mathematical economics.

When I hit puberty, I was constantly propositioned for marriage by men in the muslim community. They promised me wealth and to "allow" me to study. I declined. I didn't have a boyfriend until I left school, yet I was on all the slut lists that circulated. I had no mother to confide in about this. I internalised it. I radicalised myself. I believed that being a good muslim would save me.

Then the molestation started. Not me. I wasn't molested. But the "housemaster", let's call him that, molested a number of girls at the home. I can't prove it now. But I believed all the girls who independently said that he did it. And he admitted it to one girl who was not a victim, to her face.

There were girls who got pregnant, and lawyers were brought in to do the paperwork, for these minors to give their babies up for adoption. This was all unethical.

One afternoon, I wrote a letter to a friend who lived around the corner from the home and sent it to her with another girl. The letter was intercepted. It said this: "Hi girl, I'm really hungry. Can you send me a cheese roll please?". They called my father. He sat in the office for an hour, where they told him they didn't know what to do with me anymore. They then called me in, and left me alone with him. I was twelve. This was a home for girls from broken home, they knew he had an abusive streak. My father asked my what happened, what the letter was about, and I said nothing. He was so riled up at this point that he pushed me off my plastic chair, picked it up and broke it to pieces on my head.

My head split. I don't remember much of what happened thereafter. I came too in a small dingy practice, where a doctor from the muslim community shaved and stitched up my sculp. I have a scar the size of a palm where this happened, and it aches until today. I was never taken to the hospital or for an x-ray. Never tested for a concussion. I got back to the home, the porch was covered in blood. It wasn't cleaned. I stayed away from school for two weeks and not once did anyone mention the incident ever again. I was gaslit.

In conclusion I suppose I grew up in a cult.

And I am ashamed.

I could tell you many more stories about it but I'll stop here. I suppose the reason I am writing this is to reconcile it for myself. To find some power in writing this down so that I know it was the truth. It is the truth. To teach myself not to be ashamed. To let people in this elite circle of society I am in know that we didn't all get here because we were born into it. I was never believed when I told people this as a child, but I do hope I will be believed now. More than this, I hope that the people who read this check their privilege. Especially those from stable homes and present educated parents.

When I was in grade eleven, my history teacher, who was the principal of the muslim school I attended, not affiliated directly to the home, saw potential in me. He promised me that if I produced six distinctions he would help me get into the university of my choice. I chose the one furthest from that life: UCT. I got six distinctions, easily. I missed math, but got six. And I made it, but not without obstacles.

When the housemaster found out that I was getting a scholarship to study he tried to stop it every way he could. He called the principal and told him that my mother would pay for my studies and that I was trying to extort money from the school. Little did he know, the principal and I formed a kinship. The principal called me and I told him that this was a blatant lie.

This failed, and the housemaster knew it. So for the last month of my stay in the home, he terrorised me. I was so afraid of him that I locked myself in my room and barely went out for a month. Exams were over but I could not be released until term ended. I was so afraid. But I made it.

I left the home. My mother took me in as my dad had no house and no money. She insisted that I do not study. She actively discouraged me from it, not believing that I could get a scholarship. It was four weeks before she had enough of me and sent me to Cape Town to stay with an aquaintance in January of 2008. UCT only started in February. I had no home, and no friends. I knew no-one.

In February I walked onto UCT's campus with a full scholarship, and I wish I could say the rest was history but it was not. I struggled to adapt. I didn't know simple things - pop culture references, the names of restaurants or medication, music, movies, what wikipedia was. I struggled. Alone.

I fought. I made it. I graduated. Did a master's, did another one in the Netherlands, all by the age of 23. But still I suppressed this story. In either case, now I am here. The knock on effects are depression and anxiety. But it is eleven years later and I am starting my doctorate. No longer religious, but saved. By education. And one day at a time, tackling the shame.