Yes, I Have PTSD. And?

Hilariously, I’ve had my ‘credentials’ as a women’s rights activist called into question on Twitter for the dual crime of mentioning my own PTSD and criticizing Ayaan Hirsi Ali (see my previous blog post). These claims defy belief, but I’ve decided to delve into my experience with trauma in order to illustrate exactly how ridiculous they are.

Here, good people of the Internet, is what it’s like to live with PTSD. For me, at least.

First, allow me to explain to you why I have the diagnosis.

I’m a survivor of attempted rape. The night I was assaulted, I was too traumatized to speak. I remember my ex speaking to me. I remember him insulting me. I remember that he walked off and left me lying there.

I know I thought about walking back into town. But that would have been a walk of some miles, late at night in the middle of an Ohio winter. In any case, it would have been pointless. He had a car and I didn’t. I knew he’d track me down before I could get anywhere near town, or the police.

So I stayed, and I didn’t speak until the next morning.

There’s little I remember about that morning. I can tell you that he came over to my house, to ‘apologize.’ And while I don’t remember what I said in return, I can tell you that I didn’t break up with him. Instead, I tried to compartmentalize what had happened. I decided that I felt ashamed because I’d done something wrong, and that I couldn’t blame him for misunderstanding me.

It did not occur to me for a remarkable number of months that there’s not much room for misunderstanding when a woman tells you ‘no,’ and that he should have stopped the moment he heard it. When he didn’t, he committed a crime. It is a crime I can’t prove, and contrary to what men’s rights activists like to claim, a woman can’t put a man in jail simply on her word alone.

When I was a very young girl, I fell in love with fantasy novels. I still love them, honestly. In some of my favorites, people have the ability to tell truth from lies. I’ve thought of that repeatedly in the years since my assault because despite all my skepticism I wanted that to be real. I’ve wished that it were possible to somehow show a court emotional bruising, have it admitted as evidence of trauma.

But there is little use in wishing for impossible things.

And I discovered there’s also little use in trying to forget something happened. Sooner or later it comes back, even if it’s in your dreams, and when it does you have to reckon with it. It’s taken me years to reckon with it. My strategy has been, until fairly recently, to run. To leave town and move around, repeatedly. Eventually I flew across the ocean and stayed on the other side for as long as I could.

But flight is not an effective solution to trauma. Even there, the past returned to remind me that how utterly I’d failed to actually put it behind me. I still had to reckon with the situation. And when I did, the pieces of my self that I’d left scattered across thousands of miles of earth and water and air settled into place.

I returned to the US, and the town in which I’d been attacked–the town where I tried to forgive my assailant and blame myself instead–and nothing happened. I walked through it on my own and finally, I felt something like peace.

The first nightmare I had after the attack is one of the only dreams I’ve ever remembered on waking. In it, I ran through the tiny town I’d moved to after the assault, trying to escape my ex. When I realized I couldn’t outrun him I headed for the nearest car (which was mysteriously unlocked, because dreams), locked myself inside it and started screaming at him. But the weird thing is–and I remember this distinctly–there was no sound. Not for any of it. I knew I was screaming because I could feel myself doing it but there was not a sound to be heard. Even in my dreams, I was silent.

But I’m no longer silent, and I’m not afraid of very much any more. That means that I won’t tolerate having my experiences with post-traumatic stress mocked by trolls who apparently have nothing better to do with their time than abuse other people.

It seems that some of them believe I discussed this, once, on Twitter for some nefarious political purpose. I can promise you that I have not benefited in the least from having PTSD. I’ve spent several long years in recovery from this traumatic event. And I’m happy to say that my life is very good right now. This is the healthiest I’ve been since the assault; in fact, it’s the first time I’ve been able to say with any confidence that I believe I’ve turned the corner.

So it’s actually quite difficult for me to choose to discuss this. It’s not because I feel ashamed of my experiences. But of everything I’d like to be known for, having post-traumatic stress is not high on the list. It’s one cracked facet of my personhood.

I am not Sarah Jones, who has PTSD. I am Sarah Jones, who finally gets paid to write. I am Sarah Jones, who got to live in Europe for two years.

I am Sarah Jones, who lives.

That’s my experience with PTSD.

I’m sorry you think that’s a reason to harass me. But you’re wasting your time. If you have any reading comprehension skills at all, you’ll know that I’ve already endured worse than you can deal out, and I’ve come out the stronger for it.

Yes, You Can Criticize Religion, But

In the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali v. Brandeis University (not a real legal case, at least not yet), I am on Team Brandeis. Though I’d never dispute that Hirsi Ali has the right to express her views on Islam, I don’t think those views should be legitimized with an honorary doctorate, and I also don’t think Brandeis violated the overarching principle of free speech by rescinding it. They extended an invitation for her to speak on campus, which strikes a fair balance.

Those of us who’ve expressed concern over Hirsi Ali’s views have been accused, frequently, of being afraid to criticize religion. I can obviously only speak for myself, but I think this is a facetious accusation. I opposed Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree because she repeats the same tired, Orientalist “clash of civilizations” myth that has so disastrously influenced Western relations with the East for centuries. I further opposed her degree because she blamed advocates of multiculturalism for driving white supremacist Anders Breivik to commit mass murder, and believes Christians should forcibly convert Muslims.

I have been told I should excuse those statements because of her personal experiences with Islam. There’s some evidence she fabricated much of her background, but I am not particularly concerned with the sanctity of national borders and therefore don’t care if she lied to receive asylum or not. At minimum, it seems clear she did undergo female genital mutilation, which is a deplorable violation of her human rights.

Like Hirsi Ali, I consider myself a women’s rights activist. You won’t find me apologizing for FGM, or indeed for any practice that restricts women’s rights, regardless of whether or not religious arguments are used to justify it. I am not a cultural relativist.

Still, I think Hirsi Ali’s statements about Islam cross a red line, and this forces me to consider another question: how do we criticize religion?

Be Accurate

This is so obvious that I’m depressed it even has to be mentioned, but make sure your criticisms are accurate. For example: there is absolutely nothing Islamic about FGM. Grab a Quran and look for it. You won’t find anything about FGM in it. You also won’t find anything justifying forced marriage, or mandating veils.

It’s certainly true that the above practices are common in some predominately Muslim countries. It’s also true that imams often participate in perpetuating these practices. But as I witnessed over and over again in Christianity, and for that matter in atheism, people have never hesitated to abuse a belief system to justify their own prejudices. The root of the problem is human nature, not Islam.

In the case of FGM specifically, the practice is not limited to Muslim communities. According to Forward, a British human rights organization, it’s also practiced by Christians, animists, and even non-believers. Contrary to what Hirsi Ali would like you to believe, it’s not in any reasonable sense an Islamic practice. And it happens to pre-date Islam.

It’s fair to criticize Muslim leaders in some communities for not doing enough to combat the practice. It’s inaccurate to claim that Islam, or even religion itself, is the source of the problem. Religion doesn’t enjoy an exclusive monopoly on misogyny.

Understand The Implications

As reported by Religion News Service today, atheists and agnostics experience the lowest percentage of hate crimes in the United States. This could be because of their low numbers; regardless, it seems obvious from the data that anti-atheist violence isn’t particularly prevalent in the US.

Muslims and Jews, however, experience much higher rates given their numbers, and Muslims and Sikhs are most likely to become victims of bias-motivated manslaughter and homicide. This is probably because these groups are most visibly religious–and non-white. Atheism in the United States is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men, and as a result, privilege is at play.

Much has been made of a 2012 Gallup poll that revealed 43% of Americans would choose not to vote for an atheist. The same poll showed that 40% of Americans would avoid voting for a Muslim candidate. That’s a statistical dead heat once you control for margin of error.

There’s certainly still discrimination against atheists; I don’t intend to erase that fact. Nevertheless, I think it’s false to claim that atheists are a persecuted minority in the US. The available data just doesn’t support it. That claim is much more applicable to the American Muslim community (and I’m focusing on this community, rather than another minority faith, due to the context of the Hirsi Ali controversy).

The consequences of repeating inaccuracies about a marginalized group can be severe. This contributes to prejudice and that in turn can lead to violence. At the very least, it gives the impression that atheists are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of anti-Muslim violence. How rational are we, really, if we can’t bring ourselves to admit the facts?

In a global context, repeating inaccuracies is similarly damaging. There seems to be a prevailing misconception that in Islamic states, Muslims are privileged over everyone else, and this is only partially true. In Bahrain, for example, the Sunni minority is privileged over a Shiite majority. In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims are accused of blasphemy right alongside Christians and atheists.

The reality is that in Islamic states, as in all states, the ruling class is privileged over all others and ultimately, this has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the construction and maintenance of power. To cosign Hirsi Ali’s sentiments is to endorse a dangerously simplistic perspective on the world. This does not assist the project of advancing human rights. Rather, it restricts it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Proceed with caution. If you’re truly invested in advancing human rights, including women’s rights, make sure your critiques are accurate. Do your research. Know your history. Take the time to talk to people who practice the faith you’re about to criticize; you lose nothing by hearing another perspective.

Your enemy is not faith. Your enemy is fundamentalism, in all of its forms. As a general rule, I’ve found that it’s better to criticize specific practices and the individuals directly responsible for perpetuating them rather than an entire faith. It’s more accurate, and when we’re discussing issues this sensitive and this important, accuracy is to be preferred.

And finally: if you’re willing to cosign a sweeping attack, especially one put forward by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on an entire belief system you have some immediate soul-searching to do. The facts are simply not in your favor.