Trigger Warning: This article contains triggering and sensitive material related to domestic abuse and torture, sexual trauma assault, self-harm and suicide.
Written by Hiba Abu Taha
Artwork by Aude Nasr
This piece is from issue ’70’ – (here)
I’ve never accepted myself. This body doesn’t represent me, and it doesn’t look like what I feel like on the inside. Nothing about my body belongs to me. I’m trapped and I can’t go on living this way. I tried to commit suicide twice, but through divine intervention, I survived. My homeland, Yemen, has oppressed me, and the world rejects me. The cruelty of my torturer still occupies me. The darkness of prison still haunts me. The filth of my rapists still clings to parts of my body. I fear talking about my wounds and pain publicly, even secretly.
This is the story of Ritaj from Yemen. A 24-year-old transwoman.
A Painful Childhood
Pain, a broken home, and feelings of loss and heartbreak were waiting for Ritaj when she first opened her eyes to this world. But there was no man present to take her into his arms or whisper into her ear that he was her father. The room was not filled with flowers, nor was there among the family, not even from her mother who had given birth to her. When they brought Ritaj home and shut the door, they were also shutting the door to happiness and safety. This baby was a reminder of a failed marriage, one that ended before Ritaj even showed up to this world.
Ritaj never accepted the body she was born into, and there came a point when she could no longer ignore that feeling. Something deep down was telling her, “rebel, rebel.” Since fourth grade, Ritaj felt alone and without even a listening ear in this whirlwind of thoughts. Without a father or a mother, she lived with her grandparents who viewed her as deviant and criminal. Their words still echo in her head: “You’re soft. You’re not a man. You don’t have an iota of manliness in you.” Ritaj would pretend to be hurt by their words, while on the inside she was happy: “Yes, it’s true. I’m not a man, and I don’t want an iota of manliness in me.”
Throughout my childhood and life I was humiliated. They purposefully tried to humiliate me, in addition to treating me like a maid whose only role in life was to clean her grandfather’s home. No one helped me. I will never forget my mother’s refrain, ‘I wish I had never given birth to you. You’re somebody else’s son, not mine.’ I heard this from when I was a child till now.
I have kept every wound, slap, and pain inside, and am not even capable of talking about them with myself. I have kept even the most painful things that have happened to me to myself, locked away. One night, as I was slipping into a dream world, a monster in the form of a human appeared and ripped off my jeans. I woke up suddenly and begged him to get away from me, but he threatened to kill me if I didn’t have sex with him. He raped me. Unfortunately, this monster was my uncle, he repeatedly raped and threatened me after that incident.
This kept happening until the day my mother walked in while he was raping me, and he told her, “Your son is a faggot and he desires me. He asked me to do this.” Rather than taking my side when I told her that her own brother had raped me several times, my mother beat me and locked me in my room.
A New Life
Despite being trapped, Ritaj tried to live the life she wanted in secret, stealthily putting on dresses and wearing makeup. She actually managed to do through finishing high school, and chose to attend a university far away from her grandparent’s family. When she left for university, she rented a room and prepared to begin her new life. She now lived within walls that would not divulge her secret and could not inform her family of her actions. She loved returning to her room after classes, when she could lock the door, remove her masculine clothes, and dress in her feminine attire. She shaved her body hair and put on makeup, staring into the mirror and imagining what her life would be if she were a “full woman.”
Torture and Prison
Maybe I got carried away with my dreams and became too bold for this regressive society. I went out one day after I tweezed my eyebrows and put on neat clothes, but I wish I hadn’t. I paid a hefty price for this bit of freedom.
I never reached my destination. I was intercepted by soldiers who grabbed and handcuffed me, and led me to the police station, where I was subjected to the worst forms of torture, from beatings to abuse. I would close my eyes as I was raped, and would wake up with a military boot on my face. They would take me to the interrogation room, where the torture was so bad that eltctrocution felt like a merciful choice. I endured this for ten days. All of this was to force me to confess to crimes I hadn’t committed, such as running a prostitution ring or that I was gay and engaging in sexual intercourse.
I was sent to an even crueler place once I was released: Criminal Investigation. I spent another ten days there, and was again subjected to even more cruel kinds of torture, like waterboarding and pulling out my teeth and nails. When it got so bad that I could no longer stand, they would carry me in a ‘blanket’ and throw me into the cell where I slept. The cruelest part of this was when they shoved an empty hot pepper bottle up my anus to ‘test’ whether I had previously had sex or not.
After that, my family paid a bribe of 300 thousand Yemini rials so they would send my file to the Public Prosecution office. I then entered their custody, and they kept me in pre-trial detention for 60 days until the verdict was reached.
My family threatened me and posted photos of me and accusation, “faggot,” on social media, in the hopes that a soldier would find and arrest me again.
A Hundred Lashes
The court accused me of homosexuality and emulating women. Not even the lawyer who was assigned to defend me was spared their words. During the hearing, the prosecutor asked them, “How are you okay defending a fag?”
In the end, the judge sentenced me to a year in prison and a hundred lashes. They stripped me of my clothes and made me lie down on the floor in front of the tens of people in the courtroom, and whipped me a hundred times.
After being released from prison, I went to my grandfather’s house where I had lived previously. They took my freedom and locked me in my room. My mother whipped me with an electrical wire and rubbed hot peppers over the wounds. They grabbed me and tied me up.
My young cousin took pity on me and helped me escape one day, and I went to stay with a friend who took care of me. My family threatened me and posted photos of me and accusation, ‘faggot,’ on social media, in the hopes that a soldier would find and arrest me again. I could no longer go out. I began to dream of breathing fresh air, of seeing people in the street.
Death is more merciful
I tried to commit suicide after it all, becasue there was no space for me in this world. I took pills I used to treat hypertension the first time, and my friend took me to the hospital to have my stomach pumped. The second time, I tried to slit my wrists but my friend intervened again and stopped me from continuing.
Ritaj concluded in tears, I have only Allah. I can’t eat. Sometimes, two days will go by without eating a single thing. I live in peace and there are no problems, but if I am caught or arrested again, I’ll spend my entire life in prison. No one values me and no one knows how I suffer. I want to leave Yemen, but there is no way out. I contacted a NGO and they came to visit me once, and they told me they would find me accomodation, but have not contacted me since. No one is honest with me, and no one will save me.
Why should I be a man against my will? I can’t accept myself.
Not only was this a violation of her humanity, but what happened to Ritaj is also a blatant violation of international law as outlined by the UN.
The second article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.” Article 12 stresses that, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Additionally, Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Ritaj committed no crime and assaulted no one. She simply couldn’t accept herself, not even when she came into this world as a man. Her family punished her, society rejected her, and the state arrested her. She was asking only for her basic right to live, but now, Ritaj lives in danger, with fear and anxiety of prison or murder. She is doing her best to survive in this world, but is screaming and begging God to send her someone to save her from the large prison, which is unfortunately her own country, where she has been denied and abused her entire life.