Thursday, 14 February 2013
Today is to most people Valentine's Day, but it's also the slightly less Hallmark friendly (and a lot more important) One Billion Rising. Organised by Eve Ensler, it's a chance for women and girls to rise up, speak out and demand that violence against women and girls is taken more seriously with a view to being stopped. It's particularly important when you realise that the one billion of the title is the number of women on the planet who have suffered gendered or domestic violence, rape or sexual abuse. That's 1 in 3 of the entire femal population of earth. That means when you are in a room with three women at least one of them will have been a direct victim of fear and violence. It doesn't even cover those who have been made afraid walking down the street or harrassed at work or while socialising. It's a terrifying indictment of the way society normalises something so serious.
On Tuesday night I was in a room with 15 other women and each of us had suffered sexual violence. Despite it being a positive event, celebrating the completion of our training as peer led supporters on the unique Amina scheme through Eaves, where we take our experiences and use them to support and empower other women going through similar, it took me aback to think that every single one of us had been through this. As we ate sushi, socialised and eyed up a particularly stunning cake, I looked around at these beautiful, poised, well dressed smiling women and thought that no passer by would ever have guessed what we had in common. It was both poignant and painful to think how we could equally have been at a book group as making the effort to rebuild our lives from the hurt of sexual violence. There was no cliche, no distinguishing feature of victimhood, nothing to mark us out and with it the chilling realisation that violence against women can happen to any women in contradiction of all those ridiculous myths we hear trotted out each time the subject comes up in society.
As we talked and congratulated each other on 50 hours of bloody hard work, we didn't talk about what had happened, but what we could do now. We looked forward (not just to dessert) and the whole mood was strong, not strident. It was a place I never imagined myself standing. Even though I felt much improved on the days when I simply couldn't imagine ever doing more than existing after my rapes, when I started at Amina, it seemed like I would never really heal the raw gaping pain that was at the centre of my life and which affected everything. I wanted to join the scheme because the only way I've ever found of easing that sorrow and soreness is to campaign and agitate so that at least one other woman in London would not have to live through the same shitstorm I did. The abstract idea that organisations like Sapphire had changed because of mine and other women's campaigning was a start, but perhaps slightly selfishly I wanted to see that evidence in real life. I had wanted someone to come along and fix me, so I went looking to fix someone..
And I did. I haven't for various reasons actually done any pairing with another woman on the scheme yet. But on the way, I found myself fixed pretty well instead. In looking for something else I found an environment that offered support, acceptance and understanding that comes from having experiencecd the same things and wanting to work together because if it. There was no competition, no victimhood, no othering, just women who understood each other, working to explain emotions and responses and share. There was no angry denouncing of men, no impotent raging and frothing, no wallowing, no backstabbing or sniping or any other group of women cliches. Just encouragment to tackle things we could and change small things and to use the expertise we all have from having survived. It shifted something in me and I could finally understand why some women use the term survivor not victim. I could finally imagine not just surviving, but living.
Some of that came from looking at the politics of sexual violence, understanding the normal natural responses to trauma and being practical and pragmatic, but most of it came from meeting the other women I trained with who are truly brilliant. Kind, considerate, inspired, determined, decisive and funny, they showed me by example and their own efforts, opening my eyes beyond the self absorption of simply surviving. They shared their good days, big achievements and constant challenges, admitting to trials, tribulations and traumas and showing me that I didn't need to recover completely before getting on with life. I could be be flawed and fucked up and still achieve. Since meeting those women and becoming friends with them, I've achieved more than in the rest of my adult life put together. My life is changed beyond recognition but I know I will never outgrow them. While I am ridiculously spoiled and blessed to have other friends and family who have loved and supported me no matter how hard it, there was something especially important about meeting people with whom there was an immediate shorthand and mutual understanding and no need to have to look for the words for it all.
I can't thank them enough for the support and love and kindness they've shown me. I know that they will be brilliant with the women they are paired with and work toward helping when in simply being themselves they've given me so much. It has been wonderful to take such valued friendships away from this, but it has also been life changing to have my preconceptions of how women can't be trusted to work together shattered and disproved by a wonderfully sisterly (but non touchy feely) attitude at Eaves. I may not be singing, dancing or flashmobbing for OBRUK today but I'm making sitting in my pyjamas, drinking tea and talking about myself a feminist act by showing that women working together really does make a difference. So if you aren't doing any of the other OBRUK events be assured that being a friend to someone who has experienced fear or violence as a woman the other 364 days of the year is something to be very proud of. But if you want to do something proactive to mark the day, a donation of time or money to Rape Crisis or Eaves will share that kindness a little bit further.