Editor’s Note: The content below contains some triggering language about sexual assault.
There I was, powerless.
My numbness, hidden under loud, nervous laughter, pleas hidden under jokes: “Yo, you’re not related to me. Are you for real? Come on, drop it.”
The door was closed, the TV was on some channel where the sportscasters behind me blared mindlessly, and he asked me again, “Is your phone on? You recording our conversation?”
Everything was being asked as though it were a joke. Laughter.
He pushed again, his face creased in a smile that didn’t quite reach the corners of his eyes. “Take off your hijab. I wanna see what’s underneath. I wanna see what you really look like.”
I didn’t know what I’d done to put myself in the situation I was in. He was a high-ranking politician in Washington, DC, someone whom I’d been fighting to work for, for years. He had met my family. He knew my values because he came from the same background. I had done everything right: worked my ass off to show his office that I was an asset, followed up with his team time and again, scored a meeting with him, and now, here we were. I wasn’t dressed provocatively. I hadn’t said anything inappropriate.
He’d laid the job offer on the table. There it sat, ripe with opportunities to make a serious impact in politics.
And then he’d started talking about family. Relationships. How he was having difficulty with his own marriage, that their paths were simply not aligned in the right way anymore. I had bought in, offering relationship advice to this man thirty years my elder, a man accomplished and revered by people everywhere.
Then the conversation flipped. “I feel like you’re feistier than you let on,” he said, laughing. “I feel like you have a whole double life.”
Everything flew out of my mind, I didn’t know where this was headed. Not with this man, not with a politician who’d pledged to serve his people.
“Umm, I guess?”
“I want to see your hair.” It was a command. An order. He stood up. “I want to see what’s going on under there.”
This is the part I don’t know how to explain to those who have never experienced life wearing a headscarf. The part where I struggle to put into words the trauma and assaults you undergo daily, simply choosing to wrap the fabric tightly around your face, the pin slightly digging into your neck. The strain of representing more than a billion people, the men in your community weighing your piety simply by how much skin you’re showing. The exhaustion perpetually following your walk through public spaces, attracting attention no matter how much you try to hide.
This is the part where I was assaulted. This is the part where everything I thought I stood for was stripped from me. This is the part where I swallowed the trauma, masking it under a bright smile and laughingly request a selfie.
This is the part where he took advantage of me.
He handed me a snack box on my way out of the office. I had accepted the job offer, the numbness causing me to almost drop the box.
“See you later, yeah?” He smiled, his eyes filled with something I couldn’t put my finger on.
I called my parents, forcing ecstasy into my voice: “I got the job! I’ll be working with the office.” Their joy at the offer was muffled as I struggled to process what had just happened.
I reneged on the offer a week after, carefully typing out an email that would make an enemy of the politician that had taken what he wanted from me, stripped me of my power.
I’d like to say I’ve healed. I’d like to say this doesn’t break me anymore, that I can see his face in the news without feeling as though I want to throw up.
But when the news about Trump’s abuse of power, years ago – and continued abuse of power against women – came out, I watched the video on an overnight bus, and the breath was punched out of me.
Broken, broken, over and over and over again. The tears came faster than I could dab them away, my struggles to breathe hoarse and silent. Friends begged to call me, and I shut my phone off.
I barely pulled it together before we reached our final destination.
I wish I could say I’ve moved on. But I just can’t lie.