Asma Mohammed repressed memories of her sexual assault for years, but sometimes the way a light fell across a room or the whiff of a certain smell would send horrific visions flooding back.
By the time she managed to process the trauma of what happened years later, it was too late. Minnesota's statute of limitations on reporting sexual assault had lapsed and her testimony couldn't be used in court against her perpetrator.
"It took me years to get there, it took me years of therapy and beyond therapy, just having the support of the community," she said.
But starting Wednesday, survivors of sexual violence will be able to report cases in their own time after a fateful meeting between Mohammed and another survivor that prompted a four-year push at the Capitol to change the law. The stories of the two women and others helped get the legislation across the finish line last session as part of a sweeping package of changes to rewrite the state's criminal sexual conduct laws.
"We need to be giving survivors so many more choices of how to navigate the aftermath of being sexually assaulted or sexually abused or raped," said Sarah Super, founder of Break the Silence.
"The statute of limitations, as it existed in Minnesota, took away a really important choice and set an arbitrary timeline that, by the nature of how trauma lives in the brain and the body, really just worked to protect the perpetrators and silence the victims."
'We were told no'
After her ex-boyfriend broke into her apartment and raped her at knife point in 2015, Super launched a GoFundMe effort to create a memorial for survivors. When she realized how much talking about her rape helped herself and others, she started Break the Silence as a Facebook page to share the stories of survivors who used their real names.
Through that work, she crossed paths in 2017 with Mohammed, who was doing advocacy work with Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment. They set a time to meet again for brunch at Longfellow Grill in Minneapolis. As they sat talking about their work and experiences, they realized there was even more they wanted to do.
"Then we started talking about the law," Mohammed said. The topic of the statute of limitations came up. Under the law at the time, victims had between six and nine years to report their case, depending on the severity of the crime and their age when it happened.
The #MeToo movement was ramping up, sparked by allegations of rape and assault against prominent figures like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. Dozens of their victims couldn't testify because of a patchwork of statute of limitations laws that existed across the country.
Mohammed and Super collected thousands of signatures on a petition to end the statute of limitations in Minnesota and reached out to then-state Rep. Ilhan Omar, who offered to sponsor legislation to do so in 2018. They held a news conference and lobbied legislators, but the proposal didn't gain traction in the divided Legislature.
They tried again in 2019, but the budget debate consumed most of the oxygen at the Capitol. By 2020, momentum seemed to be building at the start of session, but the pandemic hit in March and legislators shifted their focus entirely to responding to the crisis.
"For the first three years, we were told 'no,' " Super said. Mohammed said there were moments when they wondered if they should give up. "We thought, maybe it's just not the time," she said. "People are not answering the call."
But another survivor of sexual assault, Billy Dinkel, had been watching their work with interest. He'd recently opened up about his abuse as a boy in the 1970s and reached out to his newly elected legislator, Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, to see if she'd consider sponsoring the bill in 2021.
"I believe in providing opportunities for people to speak their truth and to attempt to get justice," Hollins said.
In a hearing on the bill earlier this year, Dinkel and Mohammed shared their stories with legislators over Zoom. Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, opened up to his colleagues about being abused by a priest as a child. The bill passed unanimously out of the DFL-led House committee.
"I think that is at least part of the reason why," said Hollins. "People who normally would push back on this were impacted by these stories of big, strong men who had also been abused."
But advocates still were running into roadblocks in the Republican-controlled Senate until an unexpected ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court that granted a convicted rapist a new trial. That ruling highlighted a loophole in state law that found someone was considered "mentally incapacitated" only if the person was forcibly drugged — not if someone was voluntarily intoxicated.
The ruling outraged activists and put a spotlight not only on the work lawmakers were doing to eliminate that loophole, but also a host of changes being proposed to update the state's criminal sexual conduct law, including eliminating the statute of limitations to report an assault.
"That started a firestorm of activists on the grassroots side that was so loud that the Senate finally listened," said Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, a cosponsor on the bill eliminating the statute of limitations and a number of other changes.
The measure passed in late June as part of a deal on the state budget.
No time limit
Many legislators have supported the statute of limitations over the years as a way to protect people from wrongful charges, but views started to shift after the church abuse scandals broke open. There are many reasons some survivors never report, including social stigma, fear of retaliation, shame and intimidation.
"We were told that our assaults were not valid for whatever reason," Mohammed said. "I've been told it was because I wasn't wearing my hijab properly or because I was wearing lipstick that day, that's why I was assaulted."
She works with women in the Muslim community, some of whom told her they only realized as adults that they had been assaulted as children. None knew, including Mohammed herself, that there was a time limit to report assaults.
Super said the process of pushing for the change was healing. Sexual assault is an act of taking a choice away from someone, she said, but the new law will give at least one choice back to survivors — if and when to report.
"Over and over we see that when survivors tell their stories, they are giving others the permission to tell their stories, too," she said.