Zahara was seven years old when Sheikh Saleem Hashemi began sexually abusing her. Hashemi was a leader at the mosque she attended, and gave religious instruction at her school.
He was also her mother’s husband, by Islamic law, and lived with them. The abuse would happen when he drove Zahara to school.
‘I started having night terrors, and displaying distress. So then I didn’t want to go to school with him ... And then I told my mum, I’ll tell you a story about why, and I said, well, it’s because he put his fingers in my weewee hole.’
Later her mother saw Hashemi stick his tongue in Zahara’s mouth when kissing her. They stayed living with him for around six months after Zahara disclosed what he had done to her.
Her mother then left him, and assisted Zahara to report the abuse to people in authority. The responses they received were not very supportive, and the way she was treated did not help Zahara feel comfortable speaking about her experiences.
When they went to their local police station, Zahara spoke to a female officer from the Child Protection Unit. The officer asked her to point out on a doll where Hashemi had touched her.
The officer wore a gun and warned Zahara that she could get into a lot of trouble if she was telling lies. Because she felt intimidated and frightened, Zahara did not go back to police and is unsure if she made a formal statement.
They informed the president of a Muslim women’s group, who said that Zahara was very advanced for her age, and was lying. The woman later came to their house and advised them not to spread the allegations around the community.
When Zahara consulted with a Muslim student doctor, she was again accused of lying.
They reported to the head of the mosque.
‘We went to him and he said, “Oh, you can’t do anything about it because we need to have three or four witnesses to do that sort of – to proceed with anything like that”.’
Zahara has contemplated making another police report recently, over 20 years after the first, to see if any more can be done. She feels it is ‘almost my duty’ to do so. Hashemi is believed to still be alive, and could potentially be abusing other children.
Zahara also knows of children who were sexually abused by other people in the Muslim community, but have not spoken out about it. She wanted the Royal Commission to know this, to demonstrate that this kind of abuse could happen in every part of society.
The sexual abuse, delayed action from her mother and lack of support from the Muslim community afterwards had long-lasting impacts. Her education ‘took a bit of a back seat to just coping’, and her relationship with her mother suffered.
‘I did the rebellious teenager and did the drugs and alcohol and early teen pregnancy.’
Having a baby helped her turn her life around, as she didn’t want to put her child in danger.
For a long time, Zahara was scared of becoming a threat to children herself. ‘One of my biggest fears growing up was that I would wake up one day and become an abuser ... Because everybody says, “You have to understand that they were abused, too”, and so that made me really scared ... I know now that that’s irrational, really.’
Zahara recently began having panic attacks, and sought professional assistance. She is now engaged in ongoing therapy. It is a slow and difficult process – ‘some weeks you’ll take a good leap, and then some other weeks it won’t be so great’ – but one she feels positively about.
‘Just being able to say my fears out loud, I’d never been able to do that, let alone even acknowledge them. So definitely a lot better. We’re working towards the actual trauma ... so I think that will make me feel better as well.’