Review TS



Usha Marhé’s ‘Tapu Sjén/Conceal your shame’ [1]


by Chandra van Binnendijk

‘Tapu Sjén/Conceal your shame’, by Usha Marhé, was first published in 1996. In this book the author reveals her own ‘shame’ and that of nine other Surinamese women among whom her own mother. The theme of the book is incest in Suriname (South America). It tells us the stories of women who have been sexually abused by male relatives. It is the first publication to deal with this sensitive subject as seen from a Surinamese point of view. Merely for this reason we may regard the book as an important one.

Front of 'Tapu Sjén/Conceal your shame'

Front of 'Tapu Sjén/Conceal your shame'

With this publication Marhé breaks through the walls of a culture where shame plays a significant role and in which incest has always been concealed. “What should I be ashamed of? Should I be ashamed of the fact that I was raped during my childhood? Why should I be ashamed? Why do I have to justify and why doesn’t he? Why isn’t society ashamed of the fact that they allow this to happen? Is it because they’d rather not know that it is happening?” the author asks.  She takes a daring position against the general thought in our culture that one better conceal his shame and keep it secret for the outside world, regardless of the price that is being paid. Our culture is one in which violence has its part, sexuality is still hard to talk about openly and one where man’s perspective is of overriding importance, she states. These are all matters that make it almost impossible to bring up something like incest. But Usha Marhé refuses to hide the dirty linen any longer. She has overcome her shame after a long and difficult inner process of coping with it. She came to the conclusion that what had been done to her was not only shameful but also unnecessary, needless. The experience inspired her to start writing. Keeping still doesn’t solve anything, she says, and the other victims who tell their stories in this book, agree with her. Their advice for women who have dealt with or are still being confronted with incest therefore is: “Open up, come forward and say something, talk. If you don’t, it is not your own shame you’re concealing, but theirs!”

Is incest something that occurs among people from Suriname? When asking this question in a random setting the answer will most probably be: no. For example; after the awarded Dutch movie entitled “ZUSJE”, which is Dutch for little sister, people in front of the Movie theatre Star were talking about incest, which is the clue of the movie. In their opinion the movie “ZUSJE”, had brought unwholesome tendencies from abroad (The Netherlands). They disapproved of this because “these things don’t happen in Suriname.” Unfortunately what exactly convinced them of this is unknown.

In the introduction of the book, Marhé states that incest does certainly exist among people from Suriname. Incest does not discriminate and exists everywhere. Origin, skin color, social class or gender, neither of them keeps incest away. The ten personal stories of the women in the book convincingly prove that it does happen in our Surinamese society. Usha Marhé says that Surinamese women have always known that sexual harassment is a problem that occurs in the Surinamese society. “But because of the dominating male perspective, women have always trivialized their problems saying things like: “That’s life” or “If I didn’t die because of it you’ll survive as well.”  Women didn’t speak out loud about it until now; they would whisper among themselves, in guarded terms using proverbs but certainly would not do so in male company. Nowadays Surinamese women slowly but certainly dare to speak about sexual abuse openly (page 18).

Usha Marhé is the first one of the family who breaks down the walls of silence about the sexual abuse of girls that has been going on for generations. Marhé’s description of her family history starts back in 1889 when an overcrowded ship named Ganges 1, with contract workers recruited in India, sailed into the Surinamese harbour after a long voyage from Calcutta, India. Among the crowd on board was also Usha Marhé’s great-great-grandmother, Matadji. She was facing a life full of hardships in her new home country. This is one of the reasons why she and many others with and after her looked for support from companions and together continued their Indian traditions. Soon after the first generation of plantation kids there is a next one, but to Matadji’s sorrow the eldest grandchild is not the little boy she had yearned for and neither is the second. Her disappointment was immense and undoubtedly reflected in the girl’s name: Manthorni (= she who broke my heart). This Manthorni is Usha’s grandmother. When she was eleven she was given to someone in marriage. During her wedding night and repeatedly afterwards she must have been raped. Her husband, a notorious alcoholic, not only battered his wife but his children also. When he died of tetanus his wife was thirty-nine and left behind with eleven children. Of these children Usha’s mother is the eldest. Four of her seven younger brothers later commit incest and, like their father, also become alcoholics.

When, at the age of eleven, Usha’s mother temporarily lived with relatives of hers, she was repeatedly sexually abused by an uncle. At the age of twenty-two when she was a student of the teachers training college, she fell in love with Usha’s father and got pregnant while being unmarried. Since this is a shame in the Hindustani [2] community the couple decided to marry. It was not a happy marriage, he abused and humiliated her. After the umpteenth fight she left for her mother’s without a dime, pregnant, with Usha on her arm and some clothes in her hands. As a divorced woman she had to face the usual contempt from her family. But in the parental home the violation continued. Usha was abused sexually by two unmarried brothers of her mother’s who also lived with the family. This lasted for five years until she was eight years old and her mother moved again.

For years she ‘forgot’ about the incest. She was scared of her uncles but couldn’t pinpoint the reason why. Moreover the uncles had moved to the Netherlands so she didn’t see them daily anymore. She first remembered the incest when she was almost twenty years old and had her first sexual experience as an adult. It’s a painful shock she can’t place. “I didn’t know what incest was, I didn’t even know the word incest”. She poured out her heart to a social worker from the Guardianship Board, who was the mother of a friend of hers. “She believed me, took me seriously. She told me she saw cases like this in her work Sometimes there were even children born out of these incestuous relations who were placed in foster homes or given up for adoption. It was then that I understood that what uncle S. had done to me was wrong. But I was ashamed and the memories were still in a blur. After that we hardly ever touched the subject again.”

Marhé’s personal life turns into a bigger mess. Her mother abuses her even more severe out of frustration and powerlessness and their fights get worse. She refuses to behave as a proper orthodox Hindustani girl, rebels, socializes with Creole  [3]  people, looks for freedom but feels all the more trapped and confined. Then she gets into journalism by chance which she enjoys very much and which gives her the so badly needed self-confidence. Finally she can start her own independent life. From the outside it seems a big deal but not even this laboriously gained freedom brings her genuine happiness. Under the skin there is this sometimes uncontrollable whirlpool of negative energy she has not yet come to terms with, and consequently this results in physical problems.

TS BackIn 1990 Marhé moves to the Netherlands due to problems at her work (Suriname was a military controlled state at the time, with little press freedom). Being physically near uncle S. the blur about the incest starts to clear slowly but certainly. The first time she hears someone talking openly about incest is during the Oprah Winfrey show. This gives her the power to break down the walls of silence about her own experience. Soon she realizes she won’t be able to fight it on her own and she seeks the help of a Surinamese therapist. This is how her therapy, which will take four years, starts.

Usha Marhé’s book shows very clearly the isolation victims of incest live in. They can’t talk about it, are threatened by the abusers thus forced into silence and therefore grow up in fear. Keeping still is a way of surviving. The book also makes clear the destructiveness of incest. The committer not only intrudes the body uninvited and unwanted but also the psyche of the victim. “It knocks out the foundation of your existence,” Marhé says. To fill up that gap you have to break the silence. This book did break the silence and its significance reaches far beyond the therapeutical importance it has for Marhé and the other women who share their experiences in the book. It means that the silence about incest in Suriname has been broken. A courageous book!

‘Tapu Sjén / Conceal your shame’ consists of three parts. Part one describes the meaning of some words and step by step illustrates the subject of incest from Marhé’s point of view. In part two Marhé and her mother tell their own stories and reveal the repetitive pattern of incest. In part three eight other Surinamese women of various ethnic backgrounds tell their stories. They tell about the way they were abused, how they experienced the incest and the impact it has on their lives nowadays. In the back part of the book there is a useful directory of organizations in Suriname and the Netherlands that can be of any help in these cases.

From: De Ware Tijd (the biggest Surinamese newspaper), June 17th 1996

[1] Tapu Sjén is the Surinamese (Sranantongo) translation for Conceal your shame
[2] Hindustani: people from Indian descent are commonly referred to as Hindustani in Suriname
[3] Creole: people of African descent are commonly referred to as Creoles in Suriname