Age 18, from I Am Yours
Age 18, from I Am Yours - Reema Zaman
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Age 18, Bangkok, taken during the time I was being stalked by my high school Psychology teacher.

He would send me three-page long letters, written entirely in red ink. Every word was capitalized, his handwriting so uniformly erect that it seemed like font. He figured out my class schedule, and would wait until I was in Biology, Physics, Calculus to call me on the classroom phone. "I'm recording these calls," he'd tell me. "You're a naughty girl. You deserve to be punished."

This for him was power. Sex. Hunting. Tracking. By 18, life had taught me that for many, the trapping of girls' voices in small boxes, metal or otherwise, was a favorite pastime.

This same teacher was infamous for cracking lewd, sexual jokes in class. He gallivanted throughout Thailand hiring "girlfriends", his preferred age, 13-18 year old girls.

Everyone knew of this. The teachers. The administration. The parents.

And yet.

Of all the adults around me, only one believed and stood by me when I came forth with what was happening. My honors English teacher.

He valued my voice.

 

Everyone else recited variations of the same tired song: "Chi, chi, chi," shame, shame, shame in Bengali. "What did you do? No man would behave like this unless you provoked him."

Life is an exceptional education. Scour your story and you'll find the tools you need. This wasn't my first brush with sexual aggression. At 11, a cousin had tried to rape me. I was told "Boys will be boys" and left to fend for myself.

 

So by 18, I knew that we girls, to survive and thrive, must look within. This lesson was handy as well when at 23, I was raped. Again, without a person to turn to or lean on, I knew to trust my wellspring of female resilience.

 

So often, we girls who are born fiery or become fiery are asked, "Why are you so driven? So vocal? So impassioned? It's as if you're angry."

 

You and I, we fiery girls, torches in the deep, inky stillness of night, we ignite our own revolutions. We roar for without us, there is only silence. Occasionally, a true teacher appears. But rather than wait or fall off our paths should such a teacher fail to arrive, we alight our own way forward with the burning brilliance of our audacity.

 

In a few weeks, I'll be 34. One day, this girl could be my daughter. She could be yours. We have two options. One, do our all to murder her fire. Two, value her voice, get out of her way, and leave her free to rise. She will turn fury into function and pain into poetry.

Just watch.

Age 27, from I Am Yours
Age 27, from I Am Yours - Reema Zaman
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Age 27, taken while I was still with my ex-husband.

 

Ours was a cruel love.

 

A picture holds a thousands words. Equally true is we see in others only what we wish to see, filtered through the beliefs we project.

 

You may see a lovely, young girl. I see a woman drowning in the slipstream of her husband’s shadow.

 

He used to call them “sister-wives”. He’d say, “Baby, it’s for your own good. This way, the pressure to make me happy doesn’t fall completely on you.”

 

Aside from his taste for other women, he had a flare for rage. He never once hit me though. He attacked plenty but never lay a hand. Every night, we slept curled away from each other, our very skin recoiling from the other’s nearness. The distance between us grew wider with each breath, an ocean without an end. I lay awake night upon night, wishing that he’d actually hit me. Then, I’d have something tangible to point to. The thing about emotional warfare is it’s inflicted with far more stealth and elegance than abuse delivered by touch. Making it easier to accept, excuse, ignore, forgive, page after page. Elongating the vice-grip of the abuser.

 

“It’s for your own good.”

 

“It’s only because I love you.”

 

“You make it so hard to love you.”

 

Lyrics crooned by every abuser, spanning continents and generations. It’s like they share the same blood.

 

We lived deep in the belly of the woods, so removed from civilization that we didn’t have cell reception. Every time he boasted of a latest woman, I kept myself from shouting, crying, arguing - the last thing I needed was to be beaten senseless, without another soul for miles. I’d watch him pace, roar, the man I once loved receding into dilated pupils and a thick fog of rage. Using every tool as a writer and actress, I would calm the creature that replaced my husband.

 

I’m lucky such tactics worked; not all are as fortunate. He’d loom over me, I’d counter, all the while my heart racing, my inner child terrified, sobbing, shrieking, crawling, clawing for the nearest door. 

 

Finally, I told him, “Enough. Your hunger for chaos and other women have everything to do with you and nothing to do with me. You are but a few years of my life. My story is so much bigger than you.”

 

Courage begets courage. I write these words because somewhere out there, sister, I hear you weeping.

 

My love, he is angry because the magnificence of who you are scares him. You were born gifted with extraordinary power not for it to be wasted on the care and handling of unworthy men. Use your magic to create a world that mirrors your beauty.

 

Your fire is stronger than his shadow.

 

It has been six years. The best thing about my life without him is everything.

Age 4, from I Am Yours

Age 4, taken around the time I invented an imaginary best friend. I named her, “Love”.

Love appeared one night as I was falling asleep. That night I was awake when I felt something move by the window. There on the sill was Love. Watching.

She said, "I am here. I love you. I am yours."

So began our friendship. She had arrived to deliver comfort, wisdom, protection in the deep, inky, quiet stillness of night.

The years passed. I grew up. Love stayed with me. With every new wound, through the assaults, stalking, rape, miscarriages, marriage, divorce, disownment, more, she repeated, "I am here. I love you. I am yours."

Through my 20s and until recently, to support my art I worked with young kids. Every now and then, I'd meet a child who had invented for themselves an imaginary best friend. With those kids, I’ve leaned in and listened a bit deeper, more carefully than usual. To make sure I’m not missing any story they’re trying to share.

We humans, so much of our truth lives in the nook hidden between the lines. The subtext. The symbolism. The memories we carry, the pain we internalize, the signals our souls try so desperately to communicate. The invisible friends, fears, and hopes we hold most dear.

To navigate the sharp shards of life, we each seek something or someone to believe in. A beloved presence who remains loyal when loyalty seems like the rarest, most precious, most difficult resource to receive from others. This presence may be your inner voice, God, a benevolent ancestor, deceased relative, fictional reader, wishful audience, or your older, braver, future self. The presence you may believe in may be art, grace, faith, human kindness, or justice. Something made of light, a witness listening, standing guard near the window in the deep, inky, quiet stillness of night.

The name of what we believe in doesn’t matter. What matters is we can call upon it. This name and presence are validation that you exist, you matter, you embody a larger narrative and therefore deserve to keep going, page after page. The name and presence helps teach us gratitude, forgiveness, and peace. The name and presence are evidence that we are protected even in our pain, we are heard amidst the chaos, we are capable and resilient in all our unfinished, evolving precariousness.

Mine, her name is Love.

I am here. I love you. I am yours.

Age 24

Age 24, taken minutes into a photo-shoot when the photographer announced it was time for me to expose my breasts.

In the conversations leading up to the shoot, never once was nudity discussed let alone agreed upon.

I’ve been modeling for photographers since age 15. I’ve posed nude in a handful of shoots, before this one and after, for female and gay photographers. In those photos, I am happy, free, laughing, basking in the joy of being a woman.

Those photos are what consent looks like.

These ones are the look of fear.

Here’s the other reason this memory clings: When he said, “Okay. Arms to your side now. Let’s see those ‘girls’,” something hooked deep in my belly urged me to follow his directions. The voice of everything I had learned as a girl in this world told me that were I to say "No", I’d be misbehaving, impolite, tiresome, uncool, disobeying my lifelong education to forever acquiesce to the orders of men.

“C’mon, beautiful. Show me. It’s not that hard,” he insisted. I immediately filled with guilt over the fact that I didn’t want to do as he insisted.

The man who is tugging on your memory, perhaps he wasn’t a photographer. He is the boyfriend who says, grinning, “C’mon, baby.” although you already said, “No, I’m not ready.” He is the rapist who ignores your “No” and commits the crime. He is the teacher or professor whose eyes linger longer than the appropriate seconds. He is the colleague or “friend” who feigns ignorance when you tell him, “That’s inappropriate.”

He is the man who boasts, “I never take 'No' for an answer,” attributing it to his charm and success, who hounds, harasses, hunts until you give him what he wants.

Coerced consent is not consent. Coerced consent is akin to a forced and false confession. Coerced consent is like reaching down a singer’s throat to kidnap her gift.

The photographer kept trying. “C’mon, now. I don’t have all day. Be a good girl."

I filled with panic. Something flooded my mouth - adrenaline - mingling with the acrid taste of being here before. And this, the feeling that I had been here before, experiences marred with shadow, bolstered my voice:

“No. I did not agree to that." I put on my clothes and left.

Now at 34, when I think of my 24-year-old self, I wish I could travel back in time to speak through her to say, “I was not born for the pleasure, needs, demands, entertainment, or cruelty of men. I was born to fulfill an identity far grander than what you have in mind for me.”

Thankfully, my 24-year-old-self knew these words without carrying their fully fleshed form. And she instinctively knew the less she said the quicker she left thus the better. Furthermore, the grim reality is that most women, we gain our ability to articulate ourselves only over time, by crawling along the world’s floor, gathering Scrabble pieces to connect the sentences that, ultimately, keep us alive and help us rise.

Our duty then, now, is to launch these truths into the world so other women do not have to find them by scuttling in the dirt. To be able to instead pluck them from the air, fruit to nourish your soul, embolden your strength, inform your rise.

My love, these words are for you. You, born for a story so much bigger than what they said, what they did, what they want, how they made you feel. Your voice is a gift. Your body is a blessing. Your companionship is a privilege. Say Yes only to what aligns with your value. Say No boldly, loudly, consistently to anything less. You, fiery one, were born to light the night sky with a constellation uniquely yours.

I love you.

Age 28, from I Am Yours

Age 27, taken a month after my ex-husband and I separated.

For years, I lived as the girl the world preferred me to be. Silence was part of this role. As was starvation. As was self-hatred.

Silenced and unhealed assaults had compounded, and I had grown to believe my voice and I mattered very little in this world. We mattered so little that to apologize for the space we inhabited, I made sure to be as tiny as possible. To fit into this smallness, one that the world teaches us girls it desires, I denied myself food, love, intelligence, ambition, and audacity. Nourishment in all forms. I whittled myself petite and demure in body, mind, and above all, in voice, lest I offended others.

Four years ago, I decided to shift axis. No longer would I live from the role. I would live from the soul.

Write from the soul.

Behave, walk, work, love from the soul.

Speak from the soul, not the role.

My entire world grew from starvation to fullness. Scarcity to abundance. Fear to love. Hiding to speaking.

The moment I began writing, I learned that when we claim our narratives from the hands of others, when we decide to heal, lift, and give voice to the stories we kept hidden for decades, what we are saying is, "I am the sole author of my life. I will speak for I matter as ardently as the sun."

Silence is synonymous to imprisonment. Never again. I am now part of the collective roar. I will forever speak the sonnet of my audacity. I will speak for speaking is the first step to healing, and healing is necessary for freedom. I will speak for this is so much bigger than me. I will speak for whenever I do, another woman hears that her narrative matters, that she too deserves love, kindness, and respect, that she too deserves to drink from the wellspring of resilience, that she too, you too, me too, we are all vital voices in the collective, connective roar.

“Look at the sky. When she wishes to explode in a fury of flamingo, peach, lavender, and indigo, she will. When she desires to be an expansive swatch of calm blue, she is. When she longs to spill oceans of rain, she follows her yearning.

The sky does not hesitate. Neither shall we.”

From my memoir, I Am Yours.

I wrote the words for you.

Age 29, from I Am Yours

Age 29, taken just before leaving New York, to start anew.

For years, I had said “Yes” to any job. Any man. Any and every social invitation. Constantly pinballing between jobs, relationships, expectations, any project started on my own was swept to the periphery, soon abandoned. I hardly ate, slept, or had the energy to connect a full thought; my entire day was devoted to racing between the demands of others, racing to catch my breath, racing to simply make it to the next day.

I had no ownership over my voice. Therefore, I had no ownership in my life.

The very notion of having ownership in my world felt shameful. Unladylike. Selfish. Out of my hands.

Who was I to claim any stake in my life, let alone this world? How dare I consider having a voice, let alone dare to use it?

Then one morning, the simplest, truest truth dawned like a little orb of a sun rising: I am a person. I have every right and claim and stake in this world for I am a person. My voice is a small, new sun gaining light, for it deserves to gaze and grace the living day.

I didn’t have a clue how to reinvent my life, find my true tribe, or create a path I could be proud of. Those things felt so daunting and although they are among the most important nourishments in a human life, we aren’t taught how to find them. So I did something simpler. I wrote three lists. A list of my core values: freedom, service, love, integrity, compassion, loyalty, excellence. A list of the habits and practices that would be part of my ideal day. And a list of the qualities that when I die, I will want my life to have stood for.

To soften the fear that rebirth is an enormous endeavor, I told myself all I would focus on were the words on those pages. Day after day, my one task was to honor those words through different practices. Doing so would manifest the larger whole.

It did. It continues to.

Rebirth begins and blooms one piece followed by another. Own your voice. Stake your claim on this planet for you are a singular, incandescent orb of light. Snuggle into the unique aria your voice. Listen to its needs, hopes, desires. Allow it to guide you as you create a world that reflects and honors your truth. Whenever fear and dragons shadow your path, listen even deeper. Your voice will light your way through every darkness.