This weekend marks the six-year anniversary of my assault and rape in Belfast. It's not the kind of anniversary you tend to celebrate with greeting cards, cake, or presents (or frankly, announce on The Huffington Post). But at the same time, it's an anniversary which I find impossible to overlook.
After my article last week, many friends contacted me via Facebook to express their sympathy after reading it. Some of them I hadn't seen since childhood, others I had gotten to know more recently. "This is terrible news to hear -- I am so sorry to read about it," they would write. Or "I didn't know that had happened to you."
And why would they know? Being the victim of a brutal rape isn't the kind of thing you put on your Facebook status. You might announce getting a new job, getting in a car accident, maybe even getting dumped by your boyfriend or getting mugged on the street -- but getting raped? Ooh, well, the public doesn't want to hear about that...
Which is something that needs to change. Because out there in the world today, many women (and men) walk around carrying the secret, painful knowledge of the day when they were sexually assaulted. We will silently note the careful accumulation of years, marking a date on our mental calendar and remembering what happened to us on that afternoon in that park, or that evening, with someone we once considered a friend. We will grow a little sad, and we may decide to tell a friend about it -- or we may decide to keep the significance of this particular day to ourselves.
This is not the easiest thing to carry around in silence. But silence is often our society's default way of dealing with rape.
Rape does not fit into the public image of success that we strive to project to those around us. In the carefully curated identities that we maintain on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere in the digital world, there is a pressure to appear confident, insightful, eternally happy with life. People write expressions of joy over a child being born, or being proposed to. Facebook is full of public testimonies to all the positive milestones in life -- the day you met your future partner, the day you moved into your new home. But the bad events -- what I call the dark days -- are milestones as well. And perhaps it's important to acknowledge the impact that these dark days can have on our lives, so we can better appreciate the joyful ones.
When people do acknowledge their "dark days" in public, it's often with a sense of reverence for someone else. "Two years ago today, my beloved Aunt Josephine surrendered to cancer." If we can commemorate the passing of a loved one, why won't we acknowledge the devastating grief of one's own rape?
The answer appears to be that rape holds such a sense of stigma and shame for the victim that few people want to admit to it, at least in a public forum. But the more we keep quiet about it, the less people are aware of how very widespread the crime is. I think of the very visible activism surrounding breast cancer or multiple sclerosis, and I wonder why so many rape victims feel they should keep quiet about their own suffering -- especially when their struggle is that much more avoidable because it's been brought on by the actions of another human being. Certainly acknowledging the pervasiveness of sexual assault is the first step in addressing how to handle it.
I think of all the Facebook users who must be rape survivors, and I wonder how many other unknown anniversaries of suffering hide behind the proud announcements of success and happiness. We are a literate, compassionate society that advocates for the welfare of chickens on chicken farms. Surely, we can find it in ourselves to discuss the topic of rape, especially when it's our next-door neighbor or our work colleague who's been affected.
For me personally, I will readily admit that my own rape was the single-most defining challenge in my adult life, despite the 50+ countries I've traveled to, the multiple jobs and degrees. So each year, on a certain weekend in April, I make sure to walk around a park on my own, wherever in the world I happen to be. Last year, it was Fort Canning Park in Singapore. The year before, it was Al-Bidda Park in Doha. This year, it'll be somewhere in London.
I walk to commemorate another walk I took one afternoon in Colin Glen Forest Park in West Belfast, when I would be faced with something that would change my life irrevocably. But I also walk to realize how far I've come since that afternoon six years ago. Because that's an achievement worth celebrating, even if I only celebrate it on my own.