Coming to terms with my childhood trauma.
When I was a child, all I wanted to do was to sing and dance — all day long.
Since one of my aunts used to work at the local TV station in Skopje, Macedonia I was able to participate in a children’s show not only once, but twice. I don’t remember feeling nervous because it felt so natural to me, and when my aunt was approached by a talent scout asking if I wanted to join the kid’s music academy, I was over the moon.
However, I was not able to enjoy that feeling for very long since my grandmother, the matriarch in our family, decided I couldn’t join. It was just not allowed for young, Albanian Muslim girls to be on TV and for their voice to be heard all over the nation. When my mother told me, I was sad but since I could still sing and dance at home, it was not so bad after all.
But I clearly remember what my grandmother’s decision taught me, even at an early age: When you are female, your voice should not be loud or get unwanted attention. You should be modest and calm. You should always behave and not contradict or disagree, especially not with boys or men.
My other aunt, who was like a mother to me, used to take many pictures. Now, as an adult, I’m happy that I have material proof of those happy, carefree times. One of the pale pictures shows me and my sister sitting on the low wall which differentiated the courtyard from the garden.
My grandmother’s brother was the biggest patriarch anyone in our neighborhood had ever seen. After his first marriage only gave him daughters, he remarried and had three sons.
My siblings, my mother and I used to live in a four-bedroom house with my two aunts, two uncles and my grandmother in her house. That is all we could afford in Skopje in the ’90s. But as a child, it never crossed my mind that this was a very modest way of living. My father was already living and working in Switzerland and supporting us financially.
We had everything we needed: food, shelter, always someone to look after us and a huge garden bearing delicious vegetables and fruit. Our house was in the midst of a densely built district known for its Albanian and Bosnian population. Everyone around us was either a relative or people who had become close to being relatives because our families had known each other for decades. It was a close-knit community of people who shared many things together, who laughed and cried together, who took care of each other and each other’s children.
Our family was closest to my grandmother’s brother who lived in a nearby house with his wives, one daughter and three sons. My grandmother’s brother, I will call him Enver*, was the biggest patriarch anyone in our neighborhood had ever seen. After his first marriage only gave him daughters, he remarried and had three sons. He lived in a huge house with his two wives and children.
Although Enver always worked hard to provide for his family, he was also greatly taken care of by all. I vividly remember how everyone stood up when he entered the room, greeting him and his presence with the utmost respect. Enver was older than my grandmother so he was a figure of authority. His sons were taken care of in the same way as Enver, they had the respect of others even when they were small.
Even though there was room to live outside the rules, with fun and laughter, craziness and playfulness, in my community people like Enver could never be questioned — at least not in the open. When he entered the room, you had to stand up and greet him. If you didn’t, you’d be in trouble for disrespecting him. When he said that women had no say on an issue in the neighborhood, everyone just agreed.
No one had reason to suspect anything bad happening when kids played with kids. Or so I thought.
My grandmother’s word was the most powerful in our house and she said that Enver had to be listened to. I assume my grandmother had internalized this kind of thinking for a long time and after her husband died, she had to turn to the man who was closest to her — her older brother.
The degree of the patriarchal laws varied between families or communities, but the Albanian culture was, and to a great extent still is, a culture that is deeply rooted in patriarchal structures and rules. Its macho culture, entrenched from the cradle, and outdated Islamic practices were the main common factor in society and something not to be questioned.
As a child, I never questioned these practices. I was busy making friends, going to school and singing or dressing up with my sister. And because I had no reason to distrust anyone, especially not my relatives, I went along playing with Enver’s sons, sometimes in the neighborhood and sometimes at their big house.
All three of them were older than me by at least four years. We ran around in the garden, played hide and seek or went shopping in the supermarket. It was all natural and no one had reason to suspect anything bad happening when kids played with kids. Or so I thought.
I often look at that faded photo of me and my sister sitting on that low garden wall. We look so pleased in that picture, the garden behind us is lush and in bloom. My sister is wearing a summer dress, I’m wearing shorts and a red and white striped t-shirt.
But when I look back at that picture now, I can see Enver’s house in the background — like a ghost haunting my happy childhood.
More than two decades later I sit at my parents’ kitchen table, crying and arguing with them. By now we have been living in Switzerland for roughly 18 years and have been struggling to maintain both identities — Albanian and Swiss — although to various degrees. When I had heard the news that my mother, my siblings and I were moving to Switzerland to join my father in quest of a better life, I had had mixed feelings.
Following various other traumas during my teenage years and early adulthood, I found myself entering a psychiatric ward in my mid-20s.
On the one hand, I had been excited to explore a different part of the world and meet new people. On the other, I was very unhappy that I had to leave my aunt, who had become like a mother to me. I had also made many friends at school and in my neighborhood and was worried about going to a new school in a country I had not even seen on the map before. Not to mention that I didn’t speak a word of German, so communicating was restricted to my family.
In retrospect, being torn out of my habitat and put in a new environment gave ground for the trauma that I had endured in my early childhood to rise to the surface.
Following various other traumas during my teenage years and early adulthood, I found myself entering a psychiatric ward in my mid-20s. Just a year before that, I had finally gotten up the courage to tell my parents what had happened to me in my early childhood.
The sexual abuse I endured by Enver’s sons has always accompanied me.
Throughout my childhood and especially my teenage years, it has always been there like a dirty secret, deep inside, that I could not even tell myself. I felt so ashamed that I had brought this upon my family. I had made myself vulnerable so that they could take my innocence. I was this dirty, disgusting, damaged person who deserved to be punished for her sins.
So, when I told my therapist that I thought I had been abused as a child, it was the biggest relief and the greatest punishment at the same time. Finally, I could let the secret out, I could externalize it, give it shape. But now the demon was in front of me, looking me in the eye and never leaving my side.
When I told my parents, they were shocked to hear that this kind of thing had happened to their beloved daughter. It was one of the few times I saw my mother and father cry together. My father could not believe that sexual abuse could happen everywhere — my mother, of course, knew differently.
Even as a small child, I remember my mother telling us to cover up, so no one would see our bare skin. She taught us to be careful and not stay alone with men, any kind of men, because we are girls and we are responsible for protecting our innocence. The message that I received was that when a woman is being violated, it is because she didn’t know how to take care of herself properly.
This was clearly a one-time thing, she said, and we should not make a fuss about it.
My mother could understand, however, that as a child there was no chance that I could know. And when I asked her why she had shouted at me when she found out about the abuse when I was six years old, she was in utter shock and disbelief. She said she never remembered having punished me in any way. In fact, she never knew about the abuse.
The way I remember the abuse was that it took place a number of times during spring or summer and that every time it happened, I had to put my red and white striped shirt back on. Enver’s wife, Gjyli*, knew that we were playing in the attic and she would help me put my shirt back on after we came downstairs. She never asked me why my shirt was off or what we were doing playing in the attic.
I remember coming back home one time and my mother shouting at me, asking why I had been playing with Enver’s sons. She said that I should know better than to get into this kind of trouble. My grandmother told my mother not to mention any of it anymore. This was clearly a one-time thing, she said, and we should not make a fuss about it. Can you imagine what kind of hell would break loose if you talked about a child being abused in the neighborhood?
I grew up thinking that my mother always knew and that she held me responsible for being abused. I believed that she thought me worthless, damaged and having brought shame upon the family. And that that was the reason for never talking about it.
Now that I’m older and have talked to my mother about sexual violence in our family, I believe her when she says she never knew anything about it. Because now I understand that, just like me, she was silenced by people around her to never talk about any kind of violence.
You have to keep things in the family, never bring shame over your family, never hurt their honor. Be quiet and do your job as a woman, namely, obey the wishes of the men. If you suffer violence, do not talk about it because you will bring shame over your own family, you will bite the hand that feeds you.
I wish my mother had had the courage to talk to me, because the silence made the abuse worse. It gave room to a devious cycle of me blaming myself, feeling ashamed and responsible, when really all of these are feelings the perpetrators should deal with.
But how can a person know when they grow up in a culture that silences women on a daily basis? How can a girl know that her voice is valid when all she hears is men talking over women?
It's one thing to foster a culture where girls and women live in fear of being subjected to violence. It's even more damaging if you then tell those women that they cannot talk about it.
After I talked to my parents about the abuse, I felt that a different process had started. I could finally start untangling the knot I had felt in my chest since I was a child. And only after many years could I clearly see that what happened to me has nothing to do with me as a person and everything to do with the perpetrators.
It’s one thing to foster a culture in which girls and women always have to live in fear of being subjected to violence. It is even more damaging if you then tell those women that they cannot talk about it, that they can never mention it to anyone because it happened long ago and it will not bring anything good. It deprives them of a basic human right, namely to speak up when something is wrong. And even if they do speak up, there are harsh consequences.
There are so many things I wish had gone differently, but it is in the past and I need to find a constructive way to deal with it and heal. What I still struggle with the most, however, is that my parents have not cut off contact with Enver’s family. Even though they know what happened, they have obeyed the rules of our community of never mentioning it and not holding anyone accountable. I guess blood is thicker than anything, even than your daughter’s abuse.
Another thing that keeps giving me nightmares is something my mother told me a few months ago. A couple of years ago it had come out that one of Enver’s sons had been abusing another cousin of his (on his mother’s side). After getting married, she had told her father and her husband, and they confronted Enver and his son.
Of course, Enver denied everything and even threatened to kill them if they kept spreading “rumours.” In response, the woman’s father and husband made threats of their own, saying that if Enver or one of his sons went outside of Skopje, into the city the cousin and her family lived in, they could not promise anything.
They didn’t inform the police so that Enver’s sons could be held accountable by the law and rejected by society. Instead, both parties called a personal vendetta, based on old and outdated blood rules. So, when your honor is violated, you have the right to hurt the other person. You have to do anything in your power to restore your honor. That’s what you owe to your family and community.
I’m sure my aunt is sad because she loves me dearly. But her reaction shows exactly why I hadn’t talked about my abuse for decades.
What makes me sick to my stomach is that if my parents and I had spoken up, maybe the other woman would not have been violated. What is worse, though, is knowing that even now the cycle has not been broken. Even after all these years and who knows how many victims, Enver’s sons and Enver himself have never been held accountable for their actions. They continue to live exactly the same way as they always have. And most people still don’t know about their real character and their crimes.
When I was at the psychiatric ward, my mother spoke to my favorite aunt, telling her that I was unwell. My mother told her that one of the reasons was the abuse no one had known about until just before. So, what was my aunt’s reaction, you might ask? Was she shocked and sad about what had happened to me?
My mother told me that my aunt had said that all of these things I now claim are so long gone. Why stir up dirt after so much time has passed? Why unsettle people?
I’m sure my aunt was and still is sad because she loves me dearly. But her reaction shows exactly why I hadn’t talked about my abuse for decades. Because she too was raised in a society where you are conditioned to blame yourself when something terrible happens to you. You are taught to believe that your voice as a girl or a woman doesn’t matter, even when you have been wronged.
Don’t make yourself the centre of attention by claiming justice! You’re supposed to abide by the rules and find another way to deal with it.
But I am so fed up with that.
Now that I have finally found my voice, I’m screaming at the top of my lungs. I’m screaming for that little girl, I’m screaming for my mother, my sister and my friends.
In fact, I have always been opinionated, loud, stood up for myself and for my rights. All my life I had to fight to be taken seriously, to fight not to be suppressed by the system that silenced me and so many others for decades.
And now that I have finally found my voice, I’m screaming at the top of my lungs. I’m screaming for that little girl, I’m screaming for my mother, my sister and my friends, and I’m screaming for every woman that has ever been wronged.
I am here, and I hear you, I believe you. Let us break the patriarchy together.
And yet, I am writing this article anonymously. It is not because I am not ready to get out and be seen. I am. However, I do not want the innocent people in my story to suffer from my truth-telling.
As paradoxical as that might seem, since I believe that only the truth can set us free, I believe that reading this you will understand my reasons for protecting my family. I am, nonetheless, still a product of said Albanian family and culture.
When something is an open secret, everyone kind of knows but no one talks about it, because the consequences are too harsh. Another reason might be that you simply do not have the vocabulary to talk about unspeakable things — it took me years of therapy to find the words to describe what had happened.
Silencing mechanisms like ridicule, implicit or explicit threats (of social exclusion, etc.) or humiliation and more are such powerful and not always explicit practices. They are so deeply rooted in misogynistic culture so that they seem to be the norm.
Now that more and more women are finding their voice, we are challenging this culture. We are coming together as one powerful force, destroying the patriarchy that nearly destroyed us. So don’t give up. Speak loud and clear. And if there’s only one lesson you take from my experience, then let it be that healing can only start when the truth is out in the open.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
*All names in this blog have been changed at the request of the author.
The author of this text is Macedonian born, ethnically Albanian. She is currently finishing her MA in English and Media Studies and lives in the north-western part of Switzerland.