I’m spending Christmas at my mother’s house this year. My stepfather has recently been diagnosed with cancer; one of the many elephants in the room during these family-dense days. While my mother watches the news, I’m working on blog post for my 2016 gratefulness series. Until something happens that leaves me shaking on the inside, and I decide to write about that instead.
The newsreader tells a story of Dutch soldiers providing training and support to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. In an interview, one of the commanders talks about his personal and professional difficulty dealing with the local leaders; oftentimes older men married to girls as young as eight years old. The Dutch are there to support the Iraqi population, he says, not to impose cultural values; yet these young girls are being abused and need protection too. As I listen to the soldier’s dilemma, I hear my mother’s mumbling: “Oh come on, that’s a cultural difference; that’s just how things go over there…”
I sit very still, trying to reconstruct whether she just said the words I think she said. Maybe I misunderstood? I decide to ask her. The following conversation happens:
Me: “Excuse me?”
Mum: “Oh nothing, just talking to myself about something on TV…”
Me: “Yes, I know, but what did you just say?”
Mum: “It was something about the Dutch soldiers in Iraq…”
Me: “Yes, I heard; did you just say that men marrying and abusing eight-year-old children is a matter cultural difference?”
Mum: “Well, things are different in that culture, the guy should know that”
I don’t know what to say, to be honest. My mother is stating that in some countries, men are allowed to rape young girls. My mother, who’s daughter (i.e. me) was sexually abused at young age and is still suffering from the consequences. I feel painfully invisible and denied. My mother continues: “The Dutch are guests there, they should adapt”. I can’t believe my mother is thinking these things, let alone saying these things out loud, let alone saying these things to me. And I can’t believe my mother doesn’t understand that, for me, this is a very painful conversation to have. Or, at the very least, a very awkward one.
A few minutes later, my mother asks me to Google the name of the former president of Syria; she has resumed her cross-word puzzle. In my head, I run out of the room crying. I yell “NO MUM! THIS IS NOT COMPLICATED! THIS IS A CRIME! THERE’S NOT A SINGLE CULTURAL DIFFERENCE THAT JUSTIFIES SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN!” I scream and shout and slam the doors. In reality, however, I just sit there and stare at my screen. I’m so upset my insides are shaking, yet my body sits very still. Now, hours later, my mother has gone to sleep, and I’m still sitting here, petrified. How can she say sexual abuse of children is a cultural phenomenon? How does she say that to me? How? How? How?
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