A class of fifth graders are enjoying
recess in a middle school in Karachi.
Laughing. Playing. Not a care in the
world — as fifth graders should be.
11 AM — the bell rings. The
children are herded together and sent
to their classes, leaving the halls
replete with lunchtime refuse.
Still downstairs, I've snuck to the
canteen to buy a drink. I pay for it,
pocket the change, and run back,
eager to return to class.
Midway, an attendant intercepts me.
He asks me to follow him. Worried I
might be in trouble, I do as he says.
We walk to an empty playground.
Just two swings — nothing else.
The clamour of the hall sounds far away.
No one sees us. He faces me.
"Take off your clothes," he says.
I panic. I try to run. But he pushes
me against the wall and slips his
hands into my clothes and touches me.
I fight back. It’s useless.
A long 10 minutes end, but our embrace doesn't.
Then I threaten him: "I'll scream."
He hesitates, loosens his grip on me.
"Don't you dare tell anyone," he warns me.
But I barely hear him.
I've already run.
Chapter 1: An Agonising Wait
"What is the area of the sector of the circle?"
I repeat this for the tenth time to myself.
Frustrated, I plant my elbow on the table, cradling my forehead between my forefinger and thumb, thinking, staring at the question — really looking at it this time — hoping the answer will come to me.
For over an hour, I've been hunched over the table in our drawing room with a math book in front of me. The weather is hot, grimy. The ache of fatigue lingers through my bones.
As I sit there, thinking — really thinking, hard — but not yet seeing the answer, somewhere, within all that deliberation, my thoughts digress.
Earlier today in class, one of my teachers delivered a monologue on sexual abuse, revealing his own experience to us.
He sat there, talking like it was nothing. When he finished, he told us to not be afraid and to speak of our own experiences if we wanted to.
In return, the students in the class said…nothing.
No one stood up. Not a single person.
Not even me…
My emotions fester and I think to myself, Maybe if I had spoken up, I could have helped someone. It bothers me.
I make a decision. I pick up my phone, thumb through my contact list, and text my best friend.
"Hey. You up? There's something I want to talk to you about. It's important."
I press send. The screen lights up. The message is sending…
I wave the phone in the air.
I put down my cell phone and, in the meantime, uncap my pen and resume my homework. Fed up of question 24, I skip it. I finish 25…
Impatient, I check my phone.
The wait is agonising.
My phone rings.
I snatch it up and glance at the name flashing across the screen. It's her.
"Hey nerd. What's up? Everything okay?"
I stare at those words for a moment, hesitating. Then, I thumb away.
I tell her everything: the attendant, where he took me, what he did, how I intended to tell the teachers about him, but he had already resigned that day and left, and how I've kept it in for all these years and that she's the first person to know all this.
Once I'm finished, I put down my phone and contemplate what I've done.
It wasn't an awful lot to tell, the story took me a mere 10 minutes to complete.
But I feel so much better. Someone knows and it makes me feel less alone — the air feels easier to breathe in.
I sit up a little straighter now and continue my homework as I wait for her reply.
"Okay…question thirty-tw — "
My phone rings. I've received another text.
I pick it up and check the sender. It's her again.
I open the message.
"Dawood. I've got something I want to admit too."
Chapter 2: Contemplations in Rest
21 August 2015 — a prominent university announces the winners of its short fiction competition.
The weeks leading up to this day were languid; the days and hours achingly slow. My anxiety had worsened, enveloping me like a heavy blanket. I had never won before.
I spent an entire month working on my submission. I would go for tuition, then to work, return home, then study some more. Finally, I would type out the story at midnight when my responsibilities for the day had ended and no one was awake to pester me.
The story was replete with violence and dark imagery. It was about a traumatised man imprisoned by two little girls who looked like plague doctors.
I wrote about sizzling flesh, crumbling bones, and one-eyed paraplegics who were victims of a ritual. When I finished it and showed it to my friends, they all praised it for its vivid details and speculative themes.
But that was then. On August 21, 2015, as I look at my netbook, I click the link that leads me to the names of the winning entries.
I see my senior's name there. I see my junior's name there. I don't see my own.
At this point in time, I won't understand this decision, oblivious to the inadequacies of my composition: the excessive use of passive voice, the redundant verbiage, the inconsistent voice, and the purple prose — failing to grasp, quite simply, that good concepts must be backed by good craft.
I throw a tantrum, promising that I'll never write again. A few days later, I begin the draft for my next story. Eid makes its sojourn near the end of the following month, illuminating the world with its lustre as it always does twice each year.
My friends celebrate with their own family, friends, and a lot of food — the girls in particular with henna cobwebbed around their hands — while my mom and I hope to receive some meat to substitute our protein-starved diets.
I sleep through most of Eid and on its third and final night, I crawl into bed, lay on my aching, stiff back, and stare at the grey of the ceiling in the same room I've had for years.
Every night, I hope the efforts I make will bring some change. The last few weeks have remained uneventful, but that's okay.
It took me a while to understand, but I have come to accept that that's just how life is — not oft a river of tides, but in fact a stream of mediocrity.
Somewhere, someday, maybe I'll look back at these days as distant memories from the past, but tonight I just grow tired and fall asleep.
Outside the safe, uneventful confines of my home, roughly an hour's drive away, a different kind of horror manifests outside the circumscribes of fiction in a tiny city that celebrates Sufi poetry.
The following month, Kasur is on headlines throughout the world.
Chapter 3: A brief silence
One serene winter evening, my friend Arwa and I meet for the first time in weeks. We meet at an expensive café in Gulberg where the décor has a lustrous gold theme, and the customers pay for servings that cost a quarter of the minimum wage.
Arwa sits across from me, dressed in a shirt and skinnies. Her hair, tinted brown, look like waterfalls across the sides of her face and her smile is bathed in golden light.
While waiting for our food, we engaged in a fervent discussion on current affairs and women's rights.
"The arguments everyone has been putting against it — even university students — they've been so stupid," I say.
"Mhmm?" she mumbles.
"I mean…," I count on my fingers, "The Bill endangers the family system..."
"The Bill will cause divorce rates to rise; the Bill is anti-men; the Bill is…"
And so we talk, discussing the absurdity of those who hit their wives and the absurdity of those who defend that action as their right.
Soon, our pizza arrives — a small cheesy disc speckled with meat. As I take a slice, the parmesan stretches and tears like weak elastic. We eat.
The hours pass. Having talked for so long and exhausting our topics, our conversation is intruded by a brief silence — a placid moment punctuated by the white noise around us.
I grasp the opportunity to say something that's been on my mind for a while now.
"Arwa," I say, "do you remember what happened when you were molested?"
She rests back against the spine of her chair, cupping her hands together in unease. "Yeah…bits and pieces."
"You said it was a family member."
"Mhmm. A pretty close one."
I take a slight pause, before resuming: "You know, if I hadn't told my best friend that one night about what happened to me, I might never have become as open about my own experience as I am now.
For me, to move on, it was so important for me to confide in someone, and…I just want you to know that I'm always here if you want to talk and relieve yourself of the burden."
Silence. A moment passes, and I can see that she's thinking, mulling over her answer. What'll it be… She scours for a reply. When she finally speaks, her speech is erratic, accompanied by a smile.
"No…that's fine, Dawood, I…I am comfortable with keeping it to myself…. This is the one thing I don't mind not talking about, and…it doesn't bother me."
I nod. That's fine, I say. I've done my part; she knows I'm there for her. Actually confessing and talking about it is up to her entirely.
I glance at my phone. 7:30 PM — roughly. Time to leave. We request the waiter to bring our bill. Arwa asks me if she should pay, knowing that I usually can't afford such luxury. I tell her it's alright, I have some money.
Having paid, we carry our things and walk outside. "It was great meeting after so long," she says and hugs me. When we let go, she shoulders her bag, turns around, and leaves.
I stand there, in front of the entrance, enjoying the evening breeze under the crimson sky, staring at her disappear into the distance. And I wonder.
Just how many more people will remain silent?
Chapter 4: Retrospect
This spring had been very forgiving. The air was pleasant, the AC was off; temperate sunlight drifted into the room, blanching the walls and furniture.
On one end, nine-year-old Ilham Zahid slept sprawled across a bed too big for her small body. She drew short breaths through the tangle of hair that curtained her tiny face, as her juvenile bones were wrapped in a loose T-shirt and jeans.
At her feet sat her uncle. He had made sure to lock the bedroom door, now he leered at her, drunk on her unconscious form.
Placing his hands beneath her neck and knees, he lifted her, then lowered her onto his lap. Slowly, he tried unbuttoning her jeans.
His fidgeting woke her and her eyes fluttered open — her vision blurred and cleared, adjusting to his silhouette. She recognised him.
"Sh-Shoaib Uncle? H-H-Hi," she said, slurring her words.
That's when she noticed herself in his arms, on his lap. She looked at him and he looked back, his eyes large and rotund, unblinking.
Her stomach clenched. "W-What are you doing?"
He raised her high and threw her onto the bed.
Scared, she flung her arms and legs at him, but he flicked them away and coiled his fingers around her throat and pressed down hard. Her arms and legs went limp. She whimpered.
His hand still on her throat, Ilham lay before him. Unable to move or breathe, her body tensed.
He lowered his face to hers, staring at her dark irises. Then he raised his left forefinger to his lips.
His face retreated from her view. His hands went to her waist. He undid her jeans.
Ilham panicked. "Shoaib uncle — what are you doing?"
He pulled them off till her shins.
"Shoaib uncle, stop."
He unzipped his trousers.
"Shoaib uncle," she sobbed, "I will yell."
He placed himself between her bare thighs.
Chapter 5: Echoes
"I screamed," Ilham says."Just when he touched me, I screamed and I kept screaming, and I told him I would let everyone know. I was really afraid that it wouldn't work, but I had to at least try.
"And he stopped. He let me go and let me sit up and tried to calm me down. He was saying: 'It's okay, it's fine, nothing's happened to you, it's alright…'
"Phir, finally, when he thought I'd relaxed, he got up and went to the door and opened it…and I ran out to the small corridor behind our house and cried."
She pauses for a second, grasping for words.
"When I grew older," she says, "I felt impure…. I lived with the guilt for years. I was too young to understand. I thought that, bas, now God is going to put me in Hell."
"But when I was 11, I studied at a convent school. There was a nun there — her name was Sister Catherine — she was really sweet; I used to talk to her a lot, almost all the time. I'd never told her what had happened to me, but I am sure that she figured it out from some of the things I said. Although we never talked about it directly, she would keep reassuring me, telling me that whatever had happened to me, it wasn't my fault. She said that Jesus knows I've done nothing wrong and would forgive me.”
"Even though we worship different gods, when she said that I will be forgiven…it made me feel so much better. I had never confided in anyone about what my uncle had tried to do to me. I had no friends and I hadn't told my family. I would cry thinking that I'd done something wrong. But Sister was telling me that God understood that it wasn't my fault. That's when I finally began to move on from what had happened to me."
Ilham leans back in her chair, runs her fingers through her hair, and balloons her cheeks as she sighs.
Careful not to interrupt her, I ask, "Are you done?"
"Yeah," she says, "I'm done."
Ilham and I share a table in the corner of a popular cafe, which, this early in the morning, save for the two of us and two of the staff, is empty.
For the next two hours, we eat, laugh, and reminisce in the unabashed confidence of friendship, discussing the things we love and the things we don't, chortling at every joke.
Eventually, it's time for us to leave. We exchange farewells, promising to meet again soon, and then diverge our own separate ways.
Outside, my rickshaw-wala, Muntaz bhai, sees me approaching. He waves at me and when I'm close enough, asks me if I want to be dropped off at work. I reply that I do.
Along the way, we overtake cars, we avoid chasms in the road, and as the rickshaw drones on — the heat beating down on us; the lilt and languor of travel lullabying me into deep thought — I think about Ilham, pondering how, in her life and her story, I saw so much of myself.
I thought God is going to put me in Hell, she had said.
For the rest of my day those words repeat themselves inside my head.
Chapter 6: Mint and Misery
"Dawood, pack up, I'll drop you home today," my boss says.
This is no ordinary request; it isn't even 9:30 PM yet. My boss Imran Latif and I were immersed in an interesting conversation. Midway, he interrupts me, saying that he needs to reach a wedding and offers to drop me home along the way.
I tell him I'll be right with him. I sprint upstairs, gather my things, shove them into my bag, and return. Five minutes later, we're driving through Lahore.
The car gives a vigorous hum, flashing in and out of existence as it speeds under street lights on dark roads. Imran’s in the driver's seat beside me, his gaze fixed on the road. A heavy silence broods between us.
Five more minutes pass: all traffic has come to a halt.
"Damn. I took a wrong route," Imran chides himself, realising that he might be late for the wedding. In front of us, the congestion of vehicles slogs forward, honking their horns in irritating dissonance. It's going to be a while before we’re out of this one.
Accepting the inevitable, Imran reclines his seat and pulls out a pack of EXTRAs. He unwraps three of them, throws them into his mouth and chews, savouring the sharp peppermint spread across his tongue.
He then extends the pack to me, asking if I want some but I refuse. I'm not fond of gum. He puts the pack away, interlocks his fingers behind his neck, relaxes, and continues chewing.
"You're originally from Karachi, aren't you," he says. "Tell me more about the teachers there."
And so, our conversation continues. We discuss the politics of Pakistan, poverty, economy — price discrimination and substitutability — adolescence, the abuse of people, the abuse by them — of positions, of power, and of relationships — and so on.
Most of all, we talk about students — teenagers: How it felt once to be one, and now, how it feels, once again, to be among them.
I even tell him my own story and more — stories of children touched by strangers, siblings, parents of others and their own.
Seldom do adults listen to the perspectives of children, but Imran is an educator; his entire career depends on hearing them out. And he understands that there is much to learn, regardless of whom it is learned from.
I continue talking even after the traffic subsides. When I'm done, Imran remains quiet and continues to drive, his fingers lax over the steering wheel and his foot steady on the accelerator. The cityscape ricochets off his irises as he navigates the streets.
Imran has been a teacher for more than 15 years. He has taught hundreds, perhaps thousands of students, lecturing them on human behaviour and economics.
He has written many books on the subject and read many more. And he has created, for those who have studied from him, a better future.
If the average human mind is blood-red and pus-grey, occupied with the banalities of life, then his is candescent with knowledge.
Eventually after thinking, Imran turns to face me.
"I don't understand, Dawood," he says. "How can people be so cruel?"
Chapter 7: A Message
In 2015, an estimated 3,768 cases of abuse occurred, most of them rape and gang sodomy. It gets worse if you consider that most cases — including the ones mentioned in this article — go unreported.
A harrowing set of numbers. Do they frighten you? Or are you unfazed by them, having accepted abuse as another one of Pakistan's many irrevocable afflictions?
Whichever the case, there are three undeniable truths: Sexual abuse is difficult to talk about, it always invokes a reaction and most of the time, these reactions are counterproductive.
Let us take, as an example, the parent or guardian.
In one case, the parents discover one or more relative(s) has abused their children. And, when the children approach them for help, the parents prioritise their relatives over their progeny.
It is a matter of honour, they say.
But it is not, really. There is no dishonour in being a victim of abuse. And there is no honour in being part of a society that thinks along the lines of honour and dishonour.
In other cases, parents respond with paranoia — an excessive fear of society's reactions.
In their refusal to allow these crimes to repeat themselves, their irrational 'precautions' inhibit their children further.
They lock them up, shut them in, away from the people they love and the people who love them: their friends, cousins, uncles, aunts, and all other relatives, whom they hold so dear, because — they reason — if their children go near no one, then no one, in turn, can hurt them.
Maybe they will cry in the shower, maybe they will physically harm themselves, maybe they will do things they're told not to if this situation persists, because there is no one to speak to and no one to love. But hey, on the bright side — at least they won't be hurt.
To these parents: Don't make your children suffer to alleviate your own pain. It is not your children's fault for what happened.
They deserve the freedom to experience life. Let them. They are not wrong.
Do not prevent your children from meeting their friends and relatives or from doing or going as they please.
True, some abuse victims struggle — they resort to narcotics or other forms of destructive behaviour. Most of them, however, trudge through life with valour.
The men are called effeminate; the women called filthy; suitors weigh their worth with hesitance; religious clerics deny their tragedies ever occurred; parents silence them because apparently, children aren't supposed to discuss abuse.
Even so, the victims forgive. They move on. They work hard. They study. They struggle. They outdo their peers. They make good friends. They have relationships. They trust.
They do the ordinary, but they are extraordinary. Not all succeed at this but they try and so they live, and often, they live well.
The reality is that they are among us, around us, in far greater numbers than it is known.
Their stories are not of suffering, but of endurance; narratives not of hurdles, but of hurdles overcome. They are people. Like me. Like you. Sometimes, they are me and you.
And that is what makes it important for us to fight abuse together.
You're almost done reading this.
Remember: If you're someone that has experienced abuse, keep in mind that it is merely one event and certainly not one that defines you.
Accept, confess, confide, and with the help of your loved ones, move on. There is so much to do and much more to achieve.
Undoubtedly, it won't be easy; but, like all good things in life, moving on entails hard work and sacrifice. And, also, whether you've experienced abuse or not, don't forget that you have the power to benefit others, regardless of who you are and what you do. Parent. Best friend. Teacher. Bystander.
The roles you play in your life gives you just as many opportunities to help people. To fight any and all seemingly irrevocable afflictions.
You're done. This is it. This is the end.
Great job. Seven parts. One article. Our story.
Now go out there and make a difference.
The world could do with more heroes.
This article is based on actual accounts of victims of sexual abuse. All names have been changed to protect privacy.
Illustrations by Rohail Safdar.
You can also share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Writing under a pseudonym, Dawood Khalid, a freshman at LUMS, has only recently experimented with the visceral storytelling of creative nonfiction. He can be reached at DawoodMKhalid@Outlook.com