Exploring — and honoring — the nuanced entirety of each woman’s #MeToo experience
IN THIS WEEK’S Pacific NW magazine cover story, Erika Schultz and I explore the different ways women from minority and marginalized populations connect with the #MeToo movement’s outpouring of stories about sexual harassment and violence.
I chose the headline “Us too” after reading an essay by movement founder Tarana Burke on her desire for a racially and culturally inclusive conversation about gender-based misconduct in which she used that phrase.
Some of the women in this story confessed that they’d consulted with loved ones before their interviews to help come up with just the right words for memories and emotions that so many fellow survivors of harassment and assault had locked away, just the right phrasing to call out male misbehavior and patriarchy without playing into bigoted attitudes about their specific communities.
Erika spent hours working one-on-one with seven women of various ages and backgrounds to visually depict their sense of their own womanhood in the era of #MeToo.
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“I wanted the photographs of me to really show my power and anger,” says Muslim-American college student Haleema Bharoocha, who is shown in her hijab with dukes up at a boxing gym.
Sonora Jha says she chose to be photographed by Lake Union because, “Water signifies washing away of the old.”
“I chose to wear white because it draws me toward light, toward hope,” she adds. “Water and white both also ‘reveal’ truths that our society needs to reckon with.”
Salma Siddick, whose family moved from Zimbabwe to Kirkland when she was a teen, chose Lake Washington, where she goes to think, write and reflect. Her jumpsuit and hairstyle also are symbolic.
“I chose a jumpsuit because I feel powerful in a jumpsuit,” she says. “My friends call me the ‘Jumpsuit Queen.’ ”
“The slight off-shoulder was symbolic of me exposing a bit of myself — of my #MeToo experience,” Siddick says. “It showed strength in vulnerability. My bun is what I call my ‘power bun.’ As long as I have my power bun on, I feel I can tackle anything. It serves as my crown.”
Erika’s portraits are in black and white but accomplish what I hope my accompanying story strives to do, which is to pick up on the subtle shadings that make each woman’s life story, each #MeToo moment, unique.
Siddick says that going public about a recent traumatizing experience in which a man groped her in a sexually aggressive way during a social gathering marked an important step for her. After it happened, she kept quiet about it for a couple of weeks before confiding in a female friend and expressing her anger over it. This was the first time she had shared that experience, and its impact on her, with a male stranger.
In many African societies, she says, it’s all about women putting others first and looking out for the sensibilities of men.
“Keep your head down. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t be too loud. Don’t be too verbal. Don’t be too smart for a man,” she says. “You’re taught all of these ways of how to be for a man but not how to be for yourself … I had to change my internal coding. I had to update my software.”
Siddick brought a book to her photo shoot and holds it in the cover image for this week’s magazine. It’s Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel “Americanah,” whose most memorable character is a Nigerian immigrant trying to find her way in the United States, as a newcomer but also as a woman from Africa in a country where identifying as “African-American” can be complicated.
In my review of the novel at the time, I say “Americanah” explores “the physical and emotional lengths one goes to to feel whole again.” Siddick can relate.
#MeToo seems like more than a continuing news story. It feels like a tectonic shift that’s only begun to reverberate.
Ignorance of women’s lives, and of the nuances embodied in women of color; women who are immigrants; women who are struggling to put food on the table; women who are religious; women who are lesbian, bisexual, trans or nonconforming; and women who are combinations of qualities, has never measured up as an excuse, and it’s even less of one now.
Bharoocha says she hopes her image will offer a “counternarrative” to less-informed attitudes about women, Muslim women like herself in particular.
“They assume we are weak, quiet, etc. — this is an image that counters that,” she says. “The absence of the smile is another act of defiance, as I am often told to smile by men.”
Bharoocha shared an Islamic aphorism that has stuck with me: “Paradise lies under the feet of your mother.”
It suggests a high regard for women in Muslim culture and echoes the descriptions of the traditional esteemed status of indigenous women that Native American attorney Bree Black Horse talks about.
The #MeToo movement’s revelations suggest we haven’t always honored women, and that we’ve settled for silence.
I was struck again and again by the refusal of the women I met to be quiet anymore about the lives they’ve lived, the pain they’ve experienced, the ways they’ve second-guessed their own reactions to harassment, the anger they’ve concealed from public view and the wisdom they’ve gained.
Siddick wants to use her story to inspire other women, to help them become whole again too.
“This is part of the healing process,” she says. “Being heard is important to everybody, but especially when you feel like harassment — in whatever form — was somehow your fault.”
“Marginalized communities have a double bind,” though, trans activist Danni Askini explained to me.
Askini, herself a survivor of harassment and abuse, doesn’t want to feed anti-LGBTQ sentiment, but she also doesn’t want to shy away from tackling sensitive issues that deserve exploration.
The past several months have seen an incredible rebellion against reticence.
We should keep listening and keep thinking about the many ways we prevent women from different backgrounds from controlling their own narratives — and from holding men accountable.