Warning: Some individuals may find the content of this story disturbing
“It’s not a one-day headline; it’s something that’s a reality I have lived with for a long time.”
When actress Kalki Koechlin said this out loud at the All India Conference for Child Sexual Abuse, or when musician James Rhodes wrote, “I went, literally overnight, from a gigglingly alive kid to a walled-off, lights-out automaton,” they weren’t just speaking for themselves, but for so many like them. Child sexual abuse is an ‘open secret’ that affects nearly 120 million girls worldwide (based on a recent report by UNICEF) and these are just girls we are talking about; the situation is no different for boys. Ironically the offense, unlike most things societal, is not gender-biased as one often assumes it to be. However, it is discriminatory when it comes to being reported. In the US alone, 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 18 but only a handful of them report to law enforcement authorities (compared to their female counterparts) – the obvious reason being ‘shame’.
Unfortunately, the human mind has been conditioned to equate a man’s sexuality to his machismo. Hence for a man to admit to having been sexually abused is assumed as undercutting the notion of masculinity, thereby silencing most to shame. Many celebrities, over the years, who have been subjected to sexual crimes, have been brave enough to shed the burden of guilt and reveal their painful stories. From Oprah Winfrey, who first came out on live television in 1986 to Mike Tyson who only recently shared his devastating experience from when he was only 7-years-old, Hollywood has courageously lifted the veil of shame in order for a ‘healing of sorts’ – letting the world know that fame and fortune, class and status, doesn’t guarantee immunity to pain and suffering.
While the West has opened up to the reality of child sexual abuse so much so as to unabashedly talk about it, sing about it and even write memoirs on it, our society continues to exist as a hypocritical one-moral-too-many ground where discussing sexual abuse is a bigger taboo than inflicting it.
At a time when the country is at the epicenter of a massive child sex abuse scandal, when a pedophile ring hiding in the dark underbelly of this nation has been exposed, musicians Arafat Mazhar and Shehzad Noor have united in their refusal to hide behind pixels and musical paraphernalia. As members of the band Oreo Maqbool (along with Kenny Zerrick), the two have braved against societal ‘harams’ to unearth the dark secrets of their childhood and the inner conflicts that they have long endured in the song titled ‘Bachpan’.
“The song coincidentally happened to release at the time of the Kasur incident but the song was produced a year ago for me to come out as an individual and tell (the world) that there is no shame in voicing sexual abuse,” revealed Mazhar in a conversation with Instep. “It is an emotional reflection of my personal story and unfortunately, at the time when Patari and the band decided on releasing the song, the country was already going through the tragedy and the horrors of it (the Kasur incident). But it was never meant as tribute for the incident.”
Arranged in the form of a symphonic lullaby, the song lets the lyrics do all the talking, tuning the listener into retrospective mode. The simplistic weeping piano acts as a powerful anchor to Shehzad’s husky vocals that let you sink into melancholy, sending shivers down the soul. Even though ‘Bachpan’ was not a spur-of-the-moment tribute to the 280 children who were sexually, physically and mentally tortured in Kasur district, it resonated the pain of every victim who fell prey to devious desires. But at the heart of it, ‘Bachpan’ is a musical autobiography – a catharsis of sorts for both Mazhar and Noor.
“It was not someone alien to my family. While I was growing up, for one and a half years I experienced what I only later found out to be abuse,” Mazhar unmasked his emotions as he bravely shared his difficult story. “It started with something as small as showing pornography or telling me ‘oh look that’s what sex looks like’ to physically forcing himself on me and even trying to penetrate while I was asleep. The whole of my childhood memories have been limited to that experience. I don’t remember my math teacher, or sitting on the classroom chair. My childhood has been scarred by it.”
“The nuance of the issue that people overlook is that a lot of the times kids grow up to find out that they’ve been part of something dirty and that they may be at fault for it. But it’s not their fault,” he asserted. “By the time I was in my early ‘20s I thought I was ok, it has happened and I should get over it. It was not until I went into therapy and emotionally processed it that I decided to wear it as a badge and not hide it. I am a bit of a figurehead in Lahore’s sub-culture.
I work with an NGO on blasphemy laws and interpretation and I felt that if I don’t say it then it would mean I am guilty and people will see me as weaker. So I told everybody about it, my co-workers, my partners; I wore it on my chest with no shame to show that I fought it and that I survived. If you have no shame in discussing it then society will not be able to hold it against you or call it a taboo.”
After much deliberation, self-conflict and an emotional therapy session, Mazhar relived the incident one odd night through a melody that he recorded on his mobile phone. A meeting with Noor the next day resulted in this thought-provoking creation that was never meant to be an intellectual by-product of a collective experience but has most definitely turned into one. The song has been viewed over a thousand times on Facebook in less than a couple of weeks (given the popularity of its creators), has witnessed 5000 plays since its release on Patari and has notables such as Beena Sarwar, Adnan Malik and Yasmin Jaffri endorsing it across all social media platforms.
Coming back to the young activists, while Mazhar has come to terms with his worst nightmare, Noor is still battling with an innate fear and so refrains from disclosing the dark past. Instead he relies directly on the simple verses to put his thoughts across. He may find it hard to speak about it but it wasn’t hard for him to sing it. However, just as one is faced with a piercing moment of shock when a loved one transforms into a morbid perpetrator, the two men also saw their innermost fears surface in the couple of minutes that the song uploaded on Patari.
“I knew I wanted to put it out there explicitly saying that it’s about abuse. I didn’t want to just release it without an explanation otherwise people would think of it as a love song, which it is but a twisted one at that. So I shared it with people around me beforehand and I initially thought it’s going to be easy. But as I started uploading the song online, I had a panic attack. I felt like what have I done; that I’ve taken my clothes off and all these people are now staring at me. I felt shame and pain,” Mazhar disclosed. “But over a couple of hours, people started sharing it and coming out. Celebrities started tweeting about it and it went viral. I felt like I wasn’t the only odd one out. Every ‘share’ felt like a hug and as if they were standing shoulder to shoulder with me and the pain started to heal.”
For Shehzad, on the other hand, the fear was less personal and more to do with the change in perceptions that might follow. “I was really scared. Not of the idea that people would know something personal about me but how it would affect the people around me – the ones that are close to me. But honestly, as a musician if you can bring comfort in any shape or form, even to a single individual, then you’ve done a good job,” Shehzad added. “(Through the song) I want people to know that this problem exists across all social classes. That it can happen even if you’re well-protected. It’s something everyone needs to talk about.”
This isn’t the first time that musicians have traversed into a lyrical journey to recall their past, explore their identity and to fight out a personal trauma. Lady Gaga’s song ‘Swine’, from her 2013 album ARTPOP, was inspired from a personal tragedy; she was raped when 19. Singer Tori Amos too chased the shadow of her fan, who raped her in her teens after she courteously gave him a ride home, in ‘Me and A Gun’. Mazhar and Noor follow in their footsteps against Pakistan’s conformist culture. However, they draw their inspirations for more than just a hummable song. They aim to turn it into a ‘No Shame’ campaign, a movement that serves as a story-telling platform for the many victims who finally want to put a face to their hidden secrets.
“We are developing a website noshame.pk where people can open up about their story with their picture; associating with their face – be it an artist or not. We have an artist who has paintings depicting abuse which will also be shared on the website. There will be more songs and eventually we want to hold an event, sometime early next year, where people can come and connect with each other and speak up,” Mazhar shared. “A few organizations approached us that maybe we can turn it into an awareness campaign where parents can be informed about what is abuse, but I declined because that will be the next stage with trained psychologists. We can’t just jump to problem solving, first more people need to acknowledge and have those uncomfortable conversations. Once that is done then comes intervention, preempting abuse and creating awareness as to what can be done; child behavior and mannerisms to look out for and intervention techniques if you realize that you know some kid going through abuse.”
The campaign has already begun on social media as dozens on Twitter continue to hash tag ‘no shame’ and explicitly discuss the pressing issue. Others have found a safe space on the band’s official inbox to break free from their grim reality and breathe out in the open. Oreo Maqbool, a name that reminds one of cookies, may have been derived to have the same impact as comfort food. And the band seems to have become a much-needed healer, despite its individuals struggling to uncover the demons of their identity simultaneously.
Everybody has a story and your story is as equally as valuable and important as my story. My story just helped define and shape me as does everybody’s story.” – Oprah Winfrey
“I was really scared. Not of the idea that people would know something personal about me but how it would affect the people around me – the ones that are close to me. But honestly, as a musician if you can bring comfort in any shape or form, even to a single individual, then you’ve done a good job ” – Shehzad Noor