These are the stories of girls you know.
Girls like the ones you grew up with, hung out with, shared a meal with. Girls like a friend of mine who, during a birthday party, told me of the abuse she had suffered, abuse that was so traumatic she buried it away for years. I sat next to her as she spoke, listening to her pain and feeling her strength. I realized she was a hero whose story I hadn’t heard before. The experience of telling her story seemed to help my friend and so I decided to help other girls like her by giving them a voice, a platform to tell their stories.
There are a lot of reasons why girls don’t report abuse or speak about it: some fear they will be judged, others want to avoid the pity of strangers. Many also worry they might hurt their families if they speak out about what was done to them.
The goal of this endeavor, this project, is to shine a spotlight on the reality that behind closed doors, at home—where children should feel the safest—some are abused by the very adults who are supposed to protect them. Due to shame and fear, they are often left to deal with the pain alone and the trauma of the abuse stays with them their whole lives. I’m grateful to each one of these girls for their candidness and bravery and I apologize for asking them to remember.
Trigger warning: The following photo essay includes depictions of sexual abuse that may disturb some readers and trigger sexual abuse victims.
When I turned 16, I noticed my mom’s boyfriend would flirt with me and tell me how pretty I was, how feminine I had become. I didn’t like it. He always wanted to hug me and asked me to sit on his lap. I always avoided any contact with him. My mom was oblivious. He was a good manipulator, and mom easily believed him. Once, he decided to drink at home when mom wasn’t around. He offered me a drink, and I took it and got sick. He helped me wash up, put me in bed and lay next to me. He started touching my body. I pushed him away and finally, after I begged him to go, he left me alone. He said that even if I told anyone, no one would believe me. When I finally realized what had happened, I went into shock. I wanted to jump out of the window, but I never told my mother. With time, I have come to understand that the culprit must pay for his actions, and silence is unacceptable.
Once I went to the store to get some bread. On my way home, I saw a man following me. He went inside the entryway after me, but I ignored him. Suddenly, he said I had something on me and pinched my backside. I started screaming loudly and he ran away. I haven’t seen him since but I’m afraid to enter the entryway by myself. I don’t get on an elevator alone with a man. I don’t trust men anymore.
I was 12 when my stepfather sexually assaulted me — he touched my breast and genitals, but he didn’t rape me. I don’t know why I kept quiet about it. At the time, I thought it was the way things were supposed to be. There was a small hole in the door of the bathroom, and he used to use it to spy on me when I bathed. This went on for two or three years, until he came home drunk, and my mom kicked him out. I never saw him again but then my aunt’s husband started to pay a lot of attention to me, caring for me and going for walks with me. He used to put me on his lap and caress my knees. Once, he showed me porno. Another day he exposed himself to me. Everyone thought he was trying to replace me as a father, but it turned out he yearned for the same thing that my stepfather was after. When I turned 18, he died of cancer.
When I was a child, my cousin’s parents jokingly called me their future daughter-in-law. My cousin always played with me, gave me rings. When I was 11 and he was 16, we were left alone in the house to play with other children. We started playing “zombies:” the girls were supposed to hide from zombie boys. I ran into a room and at first, I didn’t realize that there was anyone else in the room with me. But my cousin was there. He pushed me to the ground and held me on the floor. I couldn’t move. I didn’t scream because he was my cousin and I thought we were playing. But then he leaned in to kiss me, and I got scared. I kicked him…and ran out of the room. After that, he behaved as if nothing had happened. I didn’t tell my parents. I was ashamed and scared. I was afraid no one would believe me. To this day, they don’t know about it.
I had a difficult childhood. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without adult supervision. So, I used to meet people online. I always declined when one of my online buddies asked me to hang out, except for once. A guy I knew through a mutual acquaintance wrote to me. He said he was 20 (I discovered later that he was 25) and I was 15. He invited me for a walk in the park in the morning, and I decided to skip school that day. He seemed like a good guy and appeared to care about me…Then he sat down too close to me. He started caressing my legs and put his hand up my skirt. I tried to convince him to let me go. But he said I was his now and started kissing me. It was very disgusting. He wrote to me every day, pressuring me to have sex. Finally, despite my fear of him, I broke up with him.
When I was 15 or 16, I had a math tutor, a family acquaintance. He used to hug me to his whole body and peck me on my cheek in front of everybody. I thought his behavior was disgusting, but I told myself that if something was wrong, he wouldn’t dare to do it in front of everybody.
One day I was alone with him. I was trying to solve some math problem when he approached me from behind and attached himself to me.
Every time I had trouble understanding a problem, he hugged me tighter. I wiggled, trying to shake him off…until he left me alone. I never went to his place again alone.
Seven years later, I accidentally used the same perfume he used. When I smelled that scent again, I felt like that little girl who was held against her will by that man, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
I was 16 when my boyfriend invited me to a friend’s birthday party. We were having a blast when my boyfriend went somewhere, and his friend started coming on to me. I told him no. A while later, I met that guy near my work. We kept in touch. Later, when I struggled financially, he helped me, and we became friends.
One day he came to my building with three guys, and we talked near his car. He got angry that I couldn’t return his money and forced me into his car.
We arrived at some apartment. He told me that I would stay there and obey him. I wasn’t that scared and only quietly hoped to return home by evening.
But he didn’t let me go. His two friends began harassing me and threatened to rape me…I fought back and, finally, broke free. When I tried to leave the apartment, all the doors were the same and I ended up in the bathroom. I didn’t know how to escape. I spotted a razor. Hysterically, I sliced my wrists. When I saw a pool of blood on the floor, I didn’t even understand that it was mine. They broke the door to get to me and when they saw the blood, they got scared and one called for an ambulance. As soon as I heard him, I calmed down a little and felt like I had won.
I'm 12. My grandma sends me to the store alone. I am so happy because I was entrusted to go myself! I put on my favorite dress and headed to the nearest market. Some older men are playing backgammon… as pass them, I hear "Uff, I’d like to f*** her!". I know he is talking about me. I felt his breath on my cheek because I was walking really close. I didn’t know what the phrase meant but I immediately felt uncomfortable, disgusted, as if I got dirty. The offender was a mustachioed, pot-bellied, grizzled man and he defined my personal style for 10 years. I stopped wearing dresses and skirts. I became a “boy,” ready to do anything to not experience that feeling of “dirtiness” again.
I think I was 14 or 15 when I saw it. I was returning home from school on the bus, standing in the aisle, near a seat. When I looked down, I saw a man with his pants open, fondling himself. I was shocked. No one on the bus said anything to him the whole ride. At some point, I thought I was seeing things. It definitely traumatized me. When I got off the bus, I tried to forget what I saw but I couldn’t.
“Dark diaries” was developed in the framework of In-Visible Festival organized by Salaam Cinema in Baku and mentored by photographer Rena Effendi. Chai Khana worked with Lali to expand the concept, which is the version published here.