Dear World Citizen,
I hear you. You sound very angry. And that is not surprising. In a world where the leading cause of death for women is being murdered at the hands of an intimate male partner, how can any caring human being not feel righteous anger? In a world where more than half of those who survive on less than a dollar a day women and children, what right thinking human can keep calm? When the chances of death or injury through sexual violence of every girl conceived is higher than the chances that she gets an education, isn’t the right response to scream with rage?
Believe me when I say I am angry, too.
I grew up in India and ever since I can remember thinking and talking, I was overwhelmed with messages about how “unlucky” it was to be a girl. There was the constant refrain of “Girls don’t do that” from playmates in school, from extended family members, from strangers. In the time and place of my childhood, no one thought twice about walking up to a 8 year old child and telling her to pull her skirt down or to stop running around like a boy or that she laughs too loudly for a girl.
Later struggling with sexual abuse from a male family member who chose to take advantage of my powerlessness as a child, I coped by dissociating myself from his behaviour and my body. I battled and survived sexual harassment on the streets, in my college, in every public place in the city I lived in, as an adolescent.
Through all this, my mother and sisters tried their best to help me find my own power. They supported me as best as they knew how, and told me that girls were powerful, girls were strong. They told me that we had to be strong, for how else would we live through what the world threw at us day after day, just because we were women? “I hate men”, my older sister stormed into the house yelling. My mother read out a story from the newspaper about the genocide of Muslim women in Gujurat by Hindu mobs. “Sometimes I feel like we should line all the men up and shoot them down”, said my mother and my other sister nodded in agreement.
But my mother also brought me up on stories of non-violence and love. She told me of Gandhi, of Gautama Buddha, of Jesus turning the other cheek, of Martin Luther King Jr. but she would often laugh and admit that she probably would never be able to turn the other cheek if someone ever hit her !
I grew up with a militant rage, and a passion to help women and girls and to move the world into justice. And as I grew older, I came to slowly realize that before justice must come compassion. I have come to see that my anger at men is but the other side of my grief and pain at my own victimization. I saw that for the number of men who had tried to take away my power, there was a miniscule number of men who had stood by me and supported me as well. I saw that a narrow idea of masculinity was the problem, and that these gentle men were limited by those same forces that taught other men to exercise their power over women. I saw that the only way to forgive and begin to love myself again was to forgive and begin to love the men in my life.
I am aware that the majority of the violence on women is perpetrated by men. In fact, I strongly support and encourage activists to use the phrase “male violence against women”. I do no want to lose sight of the fact that this violence does not happen in a vacuum – that women are not raped, but that men rape women; that women are not beaten to death, that husbands and male lovers beat women to death. If we cannot state the problem accurately, how can we hope to find a solution?
However, I cannot and will not blame all men for the crimes and inhumanity of some. And I say it again. Men are not the enemy. The construct of hegemonic hyper-masculinity that teaches boys and men that the only ‘real’ man is an aggressive man is the real problem. Every boy child starts off as a full human being. I respect that. We cannot reclaim full human status for women, by denying men their humanity.
Lastly, I reject victimhood, both for my sisters and for men and for those of any gender or sex. As some wise person one said, beware of turning into the enemy you seek to vanquish. I firmly believe that that the path forward is through love, and not anger.
Does this mean I am never angry? In fact, I am more often raging and angry than I am calm and wise.
I want to end this piece with some words by Alix Olson, which are a validation of how I used to feel. Alix Olson is a brilliant feminist poet. The story goes that at one poetry reading, a male audience member commented that her message would be heard more easily if she could be more subtle in her words. He wondered why she always sounded so angry. To listen to the full poem, please follow this
Here are the final lines of Alix Olson’s poem, ‘Subtle Sister’, in which she outlines various forms of violence against women and her response to it. I strongly encourage you to listen to the full performance.
See, sometimes anger’s subtle, stocked in metaphor
full of finesse and dressed in allure
yes, sometimes anger’s subtle, less rage than sad
leaking slow through spigots you didn’t know you had.
and sometimes it’s just
you see, and to me,
That’s poetry too.
- ‘Subtle Sister’ by Alix Olson