written by: Zahra Haider
artwork by: Amaaya Dasgupta
edited by: Bobbi Adair
Note: This article, shared by Collective Culture for Never Apart’s March online magazine, contains subject matter which may be difficult, and potentially triggering, for some readers. We encourage anyone who has experienced intimate partner violence or abuse to utilize the comprehensive list of resources provided below.
- Assaulted Women’s Helpline
Toll-free TTY: 1-866-863-7868
- Shelter Safe: Network of women’s shelters across Canada
- Legal Aid Domestic Abuse Hotline
- Beyond Borders – Ensuring Global Justice for Children
- Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP)
- For South Asian survivors of domestic violence who are seeking community-based assistance, please contact either SALCO (legal assistance) or SAWC (community resources) if you are in Ontario, and Centre communautaire des femmes Sud-Asiatiques (SAWCC) if you are in Quebec.
- Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund (leaf.ca)
- Black Lives Matter Resource Archive includes toolkits on healing action, conflict resolution and more information on the mental health impacts of being a member of a marginalized community.
- Decolonizing Therapy is a database of self-care and mental healthcare for BIPOC.
Trigger Warning/Content Warning: Physical & Sexual Abuse, Paedophilia, Sex/masturbation.
Since the spread of COVID-19 resulting in imposed lockdowns and restrictions in most parts of the world, I have been struggling to cope with two forms of loss: the loss of my abusive ex-partner and the simultaneous loss of collective companionship – whose platonic embrace could have kept me afloat amidst this incredibly disorienting time. The act of touching or being touched, plus the physical and emotional connectivity that comes with both, are essential components of approval many of us seek from each other. Touch enables me to recall who I am outside of myself, to place my feet back on the ground and to quieten the decade-old existential thoughts that swarm my mind. Intimate touch is reassurance that my body is “good enough”. An intimate gaze is not enough. Some of us, particularly those of us whose dominant love language is “physical touch,” need that connection.
Recognizing this need within myself is not newly founded. I felt a deep longing for someone to hold me as a young child – the Cancer Moon baby of two emotionally, and often physically, absent parents. I quickly grew aware of my desire to be touched with care and with love because I would cling to the small moments it was given to me, and the memories of it thereafter. My father, unable to communicate with me as a teenager, would instead show he cared by persistently phoning me while I was out, until I returned to the house. On birthdays, a plethora of gifts would be strewn all over my room, but his physical presence – what I wanted most from him – was frequently absent. Bullied throughout my childhood, I thought I needed my father, the patriarchal guardian, to protect me. I loved the feeling of being picked up by him when I was little, of him throwing me into the air as if I were both delicate and invincible at the same time. I saw my father as a protective figure. But when the same hands that held me, and made me feel safe like no other, left bruises on my mother, I grew confused and ashamed of my conflicting desire for touch. Instead, it became a desire drenched in fear.
My mother spent most of her time physically and emotionally out of reach. Either locked in her bedroom or out on long drives, she distanced herself to recover from my father’s abuse. Survivors of South Asian domestic violence typically are not provided with the resources to heal from sexual/domestic assault and abuse. Our socio-cultural normalisation of violence, militarism, and subsequent silence through patriarchal nationalism does not value nor condone affection. Trying to call my mother multiple times (as my father would later do with me) initiated a propensity for panicking in my seven- year-old self. This disorder left me unable to sleep; I did not want to go to school; I developed hypochondria for parental attention, and I would grow terrified of my parents leaving the home. I no longer understood how to touch or to be touched. My inability to understand this learned duality of desire and repulsion towards touch was the result of mother’s avoidance towards her role as a ‘warm’ and ‘affectionate’ parent, and my childhood sexual abuse – which I blamed on her neglectful and self-distancing parenting. The meaning of touch had been warped, construed to be both feared and desired, an act of simultaneous love and abuse that was nothing short of painfully confusing.
As I transitioned into adolescence, the internalized shame around touch resulted in “rage blackouts” and a constant suspicion of others. I grew to hate myself and the act of touching myself even more—whether for pleasure or otherwise. I began to search for ways to reclaim space in order to save myself from manufactured feelings of insecurity. I shapeshifted into an object, one that chased the approved of cis-gendered, heterosexual men by tolerating their needs above my own. It seemed the confusion I had developed around touch as a child resulted in me settling for touch of any kind, even when that led to physical volatility, because I had no clue what ‘touch’ was supposed to be, and that it required boundaries.
With COVID-19, there is an obvious reluctance toward touching others—causing touch to become an isolated, nearly obsolete act. Still, unwanted touches, in the form of domestic violence for example, has increased since the onset of global lockdowns. Between September and December 2020, the Assaulted Women’s Helpline in Canada received over 20,000 calls, whereas they had received 12,000 in the same timeframe the previous year. In Pakistan, where I was raised, domestic and sexual violence has been escalating at an all-time high. On the other hand, forms of desirable touching that extend beyond or outside of intimacy are mostly unattainable – even in the gentleness of a healing massage or a genuine hug.
In 1998, Professor Tiffany Field requested “a shift in the social-political attitude toward touch,” rightfully expressing that, “leaving your humanity behind every time you leave home isn’t very appealing.” She has dedicated most of her research to the subject of touch, developing empirical evidence that touch can combat the flight/fight response and an embrace can assist in bringing us back into our bodies, grounding us. Touch, in its essence, is an act of grounding; for many, including myself, it helps to ease existentialist anxiety and depression.
Touch is essential, but with the prevalence of the terms “essential” and “non-essential” as a result of the pandemic, touch is slowly becoming viewed as non-essential. Touch has and will continue to become an act to be avoided, a natural desire unnaturally rejected causing people to feel ostracized—feeding into the Western construction of individualistic societies, and turning waves of isolation into hurricanes. I contemplate what touch means to me now as I long for it and feel the brunt of its loss, but do I truly understand what I have gained from its absence? My body has endured so much love from touch, yet so much trauma as well. I understand my body and what it desires from touch so much better than I ever have before, but I remain in the splitting space between fear and repulsion towards it. I remain yearning. I remain afraid. The body certainly does keep the score.
Zahra Haider is a Pakistani-Canadian writer and scholar-activist currently based in Montréal (Tiohtiá:ke). Her work explores the issues and intersections of race, class, sexuality, nationalism, violence, and women’s trauma in South Asia and its diaspora. She has written for and appeared on VICE, BBC World, Wear Your Voice, rabble.ca, and others.