What American Rape Culture Looks Like to a Liberal Muslim-American

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It was always strange to me that my Iranian heritage was reduced by the media to insipid stereotypes of hyper-masculine males in mustaches who beat their submissive wives whom they draped in all black by force. My designer-clad Iranian mother was always the more aggressive one of my two parents and her low-cut dresses never even raised a brow. While there’s no doubt that male domination occurs in Iran – especially in remote villages – it’s certainly not what defines an Iranian family here or in Iran. It’s also very easy to project onto others the weaknesses of your own culture. America is the most violent rape culture in the world.

The stereotype of the violent and domineering Muslim male is actually an accurately rendering of the way (white) American men have behaved towards me.  After a string of abusive relationships, I first assumed that hyper-masculine men sought me out because they thought they could “tame” the Iranian girl. But that doesn’t explain why most of my all-American girlfriends have been physically assaulted by a father, brother, boyfriend or husband. Almost half of these women have been sexually assaulted, too, often by male family members.

My father never once hit me and he never fondled me. My brother, however, was always physically rough with all four of his sisters. He never beat me black and blue, but he would strike me if I talked back. He even pulled me off the couch by my feet once, when I mistakenly stained his bathroom rug with a freshly hand-washed blouse. My brother didn’t learn this sort of aggression from my meek father but he did grow up in the U.S.

When I was a little girl, I used to rummage through his things whenever he wasn’t home. In his dresser, I found Playboy and Hustler magazines tucked between his t-shirts. This was my first exposure to sex acts between men and women. I knew I wasn’t supposed to look, but I couldn’t stop myself from flipping through the pages, wide-eyed and curious. I remember thinking that the women in Playboy looked like my naked Barbie dolls. The women in Hustler looked like they were being assaulted by the male genitalia. I felt assaulted just looking at it.

When I was in sixth grade, a girlfriend who lived across the street from me invited me over to her house. “My parents are out, and the guys are playing their pornos.” I didn’t want to see more of what I’d seen in my brother’s dirty magazines, especially not with boys around. Even though I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t want to seem prudish, so I went over without thinking twice about my physical safety. When I got there, I was relieved when most of the girls congregated in the kitchen over chips and soda while the guys watched the violent depictions of sex that clearly disturbed us. Not one of us spoke about what the rape we’d witnessed but we all left early.

My sister was raped at age fifteen by an older guy who offered her and a friend a ride home. He dropped off the friend first, took my sister to a reservoir and told her that if she didn’t give him a blowjob, he’d shoot her and throw her body in the water. Soon after, she lost her virginity that same year to a boyfriend even though she didn’t give consent. She had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric facility.

An older man groomed me when I was fifteen years old. I didn’t want to date him but ended up being his girlfriend all through high school because I was afraid to do otherwise. My parents, who weren’t used to American statutory rape laws, thought he was a nice guy who always gifted me generously. I was too ashamed to tell my mother that he was hurtful sexually. I was afraid to tell her that broke things whenever I tried to leave him.

In my mid twenties, I was warned to avoid a literary magazine’s parties. Open City had a reputation of using GBH to drug and rape women of color. I thought I was careful even though I was dating a guy who was addicted to porn. He always wanted me to act out all his fantasies, even when I’d complain to him afterwards that he was hurting me. His marriage had fallen apart because of his addiction to porn, which his wife couldn’t stomach. It took me months to feel disgusted enough with the both of us to leave him.

In my early thirties, I taught English class at a Catholic college. One of my students wrote an essay telling me that she’d lost her virginity after being drugged. In the margins of her essay, I told her she’d been raped and sent her to the psychologist.  

A few years later, I was drugged and sexually assaulted by a colleague with whom I had what I thought was a harmless flirtation. I willingly went to his house and gave consent to sex, which he couldn’t perform. He must’ve put something in a drink, because I woke up the next morning feeling battered between my legs. I thought I’d lost my mind at first and proceeded to unravel after trying to convince myself that I was imagining I’d been raped.

Only three years later, a man pursued me for nine months, during which he neglected to tell me that he was married and had children. In fact, he lied about the fact that he lived right up the street from me. I only found out the truth after we’d been sexually involved. In California, where this happened, it’s considered rape to lie about your identity to coerce a woman into bed.

None of the male rapists above was of Iranian or Muslim heritage. They were all white Christian and Jewish American men.

I am just one woman with a story to share. I know other American women of all ages and backgrounds have their rape stories too. I encourage all women reading this to share mine and their rape stories if they find it healing. Those of us who feel able must speak out without shame to those in denial. We must staunchly refuse to continue living in a rape culture.