It’s not the land of the free if all of us aren’t free.
You can be vulnerable long before you’re a victim. The stage was set for me to be exploited as an adult when I was still a girl. My parents were alcoholic and violent. At 11, my parents tried to sell me to a Bedouin family. When I was 14 my teacher wanted to put me in a mental institution. They taught me I was stupid, and ugly. I believed it.
People can take advantage of a very fragile, broken little girl. Or a fragile adult, come to think of it.
Coping is complicated. I became illiterate in order to survive. I did everything in my power to get attention, to get acknowledgement. I thought sex was love. I dated an older man, looking for him to take care of me like a child. I thought, “I’m with him, and I have nothing to offer except my body.”
Sometimes the dream turns into a nightmare. When I was 21 I came across a newspaper ad for my dream job, in Tel Aviv. I was escorted to the "interview room” and waited until the man who was supposed to interview me walked in. Without a word, he raped me. About a month later I learned my rape was taped and distributed as pornography.
The violence was an earthquake. Every reminder is an aftershock, an aftershock, an aftershock. Until my rapist stops selling the video, I will consider myself still being exploited.
One thing God has given us is our bodies. But if somebody violates you, you have to rebuild it. You have to reshape it. It’s like if you see a tree and the leaves are falling down, which leaf do you take first and put back on? That’s what women are going through.
Unlearning is as important as learning. Things happen, and we learn one thing. To unlearn them takes so much effort and time because we never can erase memory. My memories are in my DNA.
Words matter. When I met my therapist, I felt safe enough to tell him about the man who videotaped me -- he said, “That’s rape.” I told him about other experiences, a boy who raped when when I was 6 and then told everyone. When I was 11 and my brother made me play with him and a friend sexually. My therapist said, “That’s rape. That’s rape. That’s rape.” By validating that there was violence committed against me, my wall of protection broke down. I felt accepted, not judged, with him sitting and listening to me.
When you see me closing my eyes, I go to those places. I feel them.
But I can go to better places, too. One of the things I work at is saying to myself, “You’re beautiful. Your experiences do not define who you are.”
Taking action can help you take back your life. I was volunteering for the AIDS bike-a-thon and I wondered, “Has anyone ever done anything like that for breaking their silence about sexual assault and exploitation?” When I rode my bike across Israel, the newspaper said, “You’re so courageous! Let’s do a big article about you.”
The good news is, you’re not alone. The bad news is, you’re not alone. Within three days, thousands of people broke their silence— men, and women, and children. All of a sudden the ride was not just for me. Now I endeavor to validate women who blame themselves. I say, “You have done nothing wrong. It’s not your fault.”
In war you build shelters, so you are not trapped outside, thinking, “What am I going to do if a bomb falls right now?” A war is no different than being a slave to someone who sells you over, and over, and over again. There’s no difference.
It’s not the land of the free if all of us aren’t free. Until the United States of America recognizes the problem of modern day slavery, nothing will change. We need to put millions of dollars towards opening homes where we can help people to rehabilitate themselves, to revive themselves, to educate themselves, and to claim back their power.
Go Big. My therapist taught me not to play small because of what had been done, to be the big person I am. I’m sure all of us who have experienced these things are living in a somewhat dark world. All of us live in a cave of shame inside the world of our own world.
We can break through it.
Aliza Amar is the founder and director of “Breaking the Silence Together,” an organization that encourages women to break their silence about sexual assault, and an alumnus of the “The Stories We Tell,” The Voices and Faces Project’s testimonial writing workshop for survivors of gender-based violence and other human rights violations.