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By her own definition, Laila was a happy-go-lucky child, always quick to act the clown. She thinks that might have made it hard for her parents to pick up on the sexual abuse she experienced three decades ago.

“I never spoke about it and my personality never changed [because of what happened to me],” she says, sitting in a cafe in Melbourne’s financial district, where she now works. “I was still very outgoing.”

Laila grew up in Karachi – a culturally diverse and fairly liberal city in Pakistan – surrounded by extended family. “In Pakistan, you have close relationships with your extended family and there’s a default trust factor, particularly with your elders,” she says.

She was five years old when her older cousin started abusing her. It continued for eight years, but that wasn’t the extent of it. Her grandfather and great uncle also abused her, as did a local shopkeeper.

When her grandfather died many years ago, a family member posted a picture of him and Laila felt sick by seeing tributes to him as the family weren’t aware of who her grandfather was to her. “I was so tempted to say something,” she says, “but I also didn’t want to ruin my family’s memories of him. Then again, what if he had done the same thing to my cousins and they didn’t want to say anything, either? In Pakistan, sexual abuse is such a taboo topic.”

Another taboo is the fact that Laila is gay. And she didn’t want the shame of her reality to tarnish her father’s relationship with his own father.

Laila grew up trying to protect everyone else, striving to preserve her parents’ feelings, her grandfather’s reputation and her cousins’ safety. Even though her female cousins were slightly older, when they went to the store, Laila would stand between them and the shopkeeper, who tried to lure her into the back of the shop several times. But she didn’t tell them about the abuse.

“I would always try to make my cousins laugh, doing stupid things so that they didn’t have to feel what I was feeling,” she says.

Four young children running on a path.

Eventually, her parents found out about the abuse through someone else when it was Laila’s story to tell.

“It was a shock to them,” she says. “My mother had looked on my cousin as her own son. I think they felt guilty that they should have caught on quicker or done something more. The only thing they did was make sure I was cut off from the abusers.”

The pressure of having worn two masks for so long – the mask of being a happy child and the mask of being a straight girl – caught up with Laila in her teens, when she began self-harming.

She made suicide attempts and was put on sedatives in an attempt to curb her mood swings.

“Back then I didn’t have any resources, so I was closing myself off from people. There was no internet to find support groups or similar stories.”

At home, she took her rage out on doors and walls, and at times became physically aggressive towards her mother. And yet, at school, she remained popular, and did well in her studies and at sport. She experienced sexual relationships with both males and females before she realised she felt more secure with women.

Two women on the cricket pitch.

Laila played for the Pakistani women’s cricket team, and many of her teammates were gay. Having that in common strengthened their bonds to the point that it was easier to also discuss abuse. 

“We all had similar issues. Number one was not being able to talk to our families about what we’d been through. So there was a sisterhood of gay women having the same issues.”

Laila had to eventually come out to her parents as an acquaintance told her parents behind her back. It wasn’t the way she wanted it to happen but she says her parents embraced it the best way they knew.

“They said, ‘We love you as you are.’ Instead of me assimilating into their lifestyle, they went along with mine, which was brilliant, particularly back then. I think that, in large part, they actually saved me.”

In Melbourne, she settled into a relationship with a woman that lasted almost nine years. But, she says, it was an abusive relationship – “because I was abusive”. Her own behaviour only compounded her deep-seated sense of shame and she had several breakdowns, which came in the form of alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. They caused great emotional harm to her ex.

Laila realised she needed professional help, but she grew frustrated at therapists trying to reassure her that the abuse wasn’t her fault. “I think it’s more important to acknowledge something and move towards something more positive. I’m a very self-aware person and I know what I’ve done wrong and what I haven’t.”

There was no breakthrough moment with tackling shame, she says. When she bumped into her ex recently, for instance, the feelings of shame were triggered.

Vitally, she now knows how to practise mental health maintenance. “It’s so important that you find a good medium for you, whether it’s journaling or music or whatever you’re passionate about. And my new partner gave me the avenue to change myself. When I told her about my abusive relationship, she said, ‘If you’re ever like that with me, I’m walking out the door,’ but she also didn’t see me as the monster I saw myself as.”

Laila is pleased that Pakistani women are talking about sexual abuse more and more, be that in the media or with others. “You still probably wouldn’t say, ‘Hey guys, I’ll see you tomorrow because I have a therapy session’,” she smiles. “That’s still fairly unspoken. When you use the term ‘mental health’ I think some people focus on the ‘mental’ and forget about the ‘health’ aspect – that it’s actually good for you to focus on the fact that there’s something wrong.”

When she thinks about why she’s sitting in this cafe, telling her story, Laila is clear.

“Until now, I haven’t spoken about a lot of it,” she says. “I’ve been very choosy about what I shared with the world, because there are people who think they understand versus people who actually understand. But the Beyond Blue forums were a great help for me, and hopefully my story will help other people too.”

*not her real name

Illustration of a young woman with her mother and father.

Where to get help

Wendy Lobwein is the senior manager of the Prevention of Violence Against Women Program at AMES Australia, which assists migrants and refugees. She says, “Sexual abuse of children occurs across all cultures and is rooted in inequality and harmful social norms. Women are frequently socialised to be more compliant, and learn they have value in being subordinate. They are therefore very vulnerable to abuse by more powerful members of their family and community.”

But, she says, “Informed, supported survivors have played a huge role in better shaping how our society views and responds to this abuse. Their courage in sharing their experience is shifting our cultures. Every woman who starts recovery is a powerful resource for a better future for us all.”

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, 1800 RESPECT provides confidential sexual assault and family and domestic violence counselling via phone and webchat. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Phone 1800 737 732.

If an interpreter is necessary, you can request one via 1800 RESPECT, or call the Translation and Interpreting Service (TIS) on 13 14 50.

HeartChat is an online platform that connects people from under-represented communities with mental health professionals that match their cultural and religious beliefs. Available in multiple languages, the HeartChat website makes it easier for people who speak languages other than English to read and understand information about mental health.

You might also choose to visit Beyond Blue’s support services. Our mental health professionals are available 24/7 on: 1300 22 4636 or via web chat (1pm-12am AEST). Alternatively, contact us via email (responses within 24 hours). 

For immediate support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 and in an emergency, always call triple zero (000).

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