How to build a better world? Start where you stand.
A new year. And, as usual, an array of resolutions and a bazillion ways to “be a better you.” And, as usual, too few ways to “be a better us.” This is the time of year where I consciously recommit to my bigger goals — not just personal stuff like reading more books with less pictures, and fitting into my pre-pandemic pants. I’m talking about the BigStuff. My big fat why.
I know my why. I’ve known it since I was a kid, actually. I want to end men’s violence against women, I say. And that’s all. But sometimes, I need to remind myself of where I’ve come from, as a way to more strongly face where I’m going.
This story is my why…
In May of 2015, I got off a plane from Kathmandu and onto a red circle placed in the center of a stage in London. It was the first time I was on a stage to speak about myself — my story. Until that moment, I had gabbed about my work all over the place, but never about who I am and why I do what I do. So I had to think hard about what I wanted to say. I had to make it personal.
And this is what I said:
It was Tuesday, May 12, lunchtime. I was sitting in the office at the United Nations in Kathmandu, Nepal, busily typing away. Suddenly, things started to feel a bit shaky. Could it be serious? When I saw the look of fear on the faces of my colleagues, I realized that yes, it was serious. We were on the third floor, we couldn’t get to an exit, so we wobbled our way to a column in the center of the room. We hugged the column, we hugged each other, and we waited for the earth to stop growling.
I heard colleagues praying in Nepali, and others saying “No, not again, not again.” And me, underneath the fear, I heard myself think: Did I save that document I was working on? Who’s gonna look after my dog? I just made coffee — will it spill? But more importantly, I remember wondering what Nepal was going to look like when the shaking stopped. This shaking came just two weeks after that first big earthquake. The fear hadn’t even subsided, and now another earthquake, more damage, more fear. Once you feel unsafe in a place, it’s hard to ever feel safe there again.
What was I doing there anyway? I went to Nepal to work. I work in humanitarian emergencies, conflicts, natural disasters — the world’s messy stuff. And in the middle of that messy stuff, I work on preventing sexual violence — or at least trying to. After a war or natural disaster, in the middle of all the chaos, all the things we count on to protect us and support us — law and order, systems, services, safety nets — are damaged and destroyed. So at those times, you’d think we all stand up, step up, stick together. No. At those times, sexual violence actually increases.
When we think the emergency is over, for women the emergency is actually just beginning. That’s where I come in. I love my job, but I have to be honest. I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the world if ending sexual violence is a career rather than common sense.
How did I end up with this sort of career? Let’s start at the beginning. 300 years ago, in Palestine, my mother’s side of the family was involved in a murder. They moved towns, and then again, and eventually they left Palestine altogether. The murder was only part of it. They’re Palestinian, so they’re unfortunately still moving. A few hundred years later, my paternal grandfather got a job on a ship as a barber, leaving Lebanon and landing in Senegal. And there he remained for 40 years. We’ve been displaced from day one.
My parents come from different countries and different religions. They met in Lebanon where interfaith marriage actually is illegal — they married anyway. Then the Civil War started, so we didn’t stay there very long. We were cornered by conflict and surrounded by injustice.
And there’s me. I was born with a dislocated hip in the middle of a war. A broken girl in a broken country. In those days, the medical response was to put me in a body cast, ankles to neck. And I remained imprisoned in plaster for one whole year. When the cast finally came off, I couldn’t wait to move. Needless to say I’ve moved around a lot since then. I was born into conflict and displacement — I’ve always been comfortable in chaos.
Back to sexual violence. In my work, I keep saying that people need to take it personally — because it is personal. There is something wrong with the world if people have to dedicate their lives to fixing this mess. People like me.
Anyway, we left our little enclave in Lebanon, going first to Saudi Arabia — an interesting place to start thinking about gender issues. And then we landed in the States. By the time I got there, I had cultural whiplash. So many countries and conflicts were already behind me, and so many lay ahead — but I didn’t know it at the time. My moment of awakening came in a high school class where I learned about the different forms of violence against women: foot binding, acid burning, child marriage. I wrote my first real research paper on female genital cutting. I was 14, a very grim little kid. The thing was, it made me so angry. I couldn’t sleep. It still makes me angry.
We know that one in three women and girls worldwide are going to experience some form of violence in their lifetime — the most pervasive human rights violation in the world. Every culture, every country, every society, every religion, every time period, even right here, right now. Everywhere in the world, women are the ones who are more poor. They have less choice, less political voice, less mobility, less access to healthcare, less education, and they are more vulnerable to violence. No country is immune. I have not heard of a country with a clean record yet — or I’d be living there.
How are we going to end this, you’re all thinking? This way: we have to take it personally. In 2002, I moved to Afghanistan, where women said “What is the point of discussing violence now while our children have empty bellies?” And yet it’s also where some Afghan women preferred to set themselves on fire than to live lives of violence. When I moved to Afghanistan, people said “Wow what a sacrifice. You’re a hero.” No, I am no hero, not me. The women there who fight, who survive, who persevere, those are the heroes. Not me. But still, this isn’t just Afghanistan, it’s everywhere.
And then I moved to Papua New Guinea, where domestic violence is so incredibly violent. Women will show you their missing ear, or the slash across their stomach from a bush knife. This is where gang rapes — known as “line-ups” — are so common, they are part of male bonding and recreation. Even police officers participate. They pick up women, sometimes young girls, on false accusations, bring them back to the station and rape them — sometimes using glass bottles, sometimes using their guns. Yes, the very people whose duty it is to protect. It makes me want to scream. Or vomit. Or both. Papua New Guinea… where women who have access to female condoms will wear them all the time, just in case. Just in case they are raped. No one should have to be governed by that kind of fear. But it’s not just Papua New Guinea, it’s everywhere.
Meanwhile I’m trudging along, country after country. With every country, I’m learning how to pack lighter, but my heart is getting so much heavier.
And then I went to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010. Haiti… where girls as young as nine were being raped by packs of 11-year-old boys. Where peacekeepers distributing food rations would offer “a little extra” to women who would do “a little extra” for them. We actually have to tell peacekeepers not to sexually exploit those they are supposed to be helping. Why do we even have to say that?!
In Haiti, I met a young woman in a camp who said: “If I could do one thing for my Haitian sisters, it would be to help them take charge of their bodies and protect them.”
“I have one pair of underwear,” she told me. “I wash it every night so I can wear it clean the next day. We must adapt or we won’t survive.”
Meanwhile, I was barely surviving. Clearly, I wasn’t succeeding in ending sexual violence anywhere. And I was getting pretty used to failure. But we can not fail. Because this isn’t just Haiti, it’s personal.
Personally, I wanted to quit a bazillion times every day. But quitting is not going to make it go away. I’ve seen these things, and so I can’t possibly un-see them. Let’s be honest, every single one of us knows the experience of being afraid, and maybe even the experience of violence — not just women, everyone. The form is different, the context is different, but how it makes us feel is the same. I wish I could erase that feeling of fear from the collective minds of women and girls. But even I walk at night with my keys and my hand, and I text my friends to say “Yes, I got home okay.” I wonder what we would do with all the free space in our heads and in our lives if we did not have to restrict our freedom because of fear. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence.
In the Central African Republic, after years of conflict and global neglect, I met a woman who told me when the rebels came into her village they asked her to choose: “Either we kill your husband in front of you, or we rape you in front of him?” Is that a choice?
Enough stories. We need to do something. And yet, before doing anything, governments, media, organizations ask: “How many women? We won’t take it seriously unless there are numbers.” Why? Isn’t one rape enough? No. Actually, one rape is one too many. Sexual violence is under reported everywhere. Yes, even here. So any numbers that we have are going to continue to underrepresent reality. Anyway, what would be the threshold, exactly? How many rapes is “enough”? 10, 100, 1000? I don’t know.
I feel like I have spent a lifetime collecting women’s tragedies. The more I heard, the more I saw, the more I did, the less I wanted to share. And the angrier I became. I was angry with all of us. Why do we need numbers and gory stories in order to understand, in order to act? We can’t dismiss this, it’s not “other women, over there”. It’s one in three. Look around this room. It’s all of us. We are all affected, so we are all responsible.
In the U.S., after Hurricane Katrina, sexual violence increased so much that emergency services had to turn women away because they could not help them all. And schools are no longer safe for women because sports team can rape with impunity. And rape culture, where sexual violence is normalized, accepted, treated as inevitable. And the survivor is the guilty one. “Where were you going? What were you wearing? Why were you drinking?” That sounds like an emergency to me.
And that brings us back to Nepal. I arrived in Nepal a few days after that first big earthquake. There, I met women who were sleeping outside because their homes were destroyed. They said: “We don’t go get food, we don’t go to the toilet, there are men here we don’t know. We are afraid to move. We do not feel safe.”
I don’t think we need to experience violence in order to understand how much it restricts women’s choice, space, and freedom. And yet I have to argue, even with colleagues, about whether preventing sexual violence is considered life-saving or not. “We have to prioritize shelter, food, health,” they say. Yes, we do. But, ask any woman what she would prefer. If given the choice, would she prefer a full belly or bodily integrity? Ask her, and see what she says. Because I, for one, would prefer to go hungry and to not be raped. And if that argument doesn’t work, I don’t know what will. I know I have committed to a challenge that I cannot possibly achieve in my lifetime. And I won’t give up. But I am getting so.very.tired.
But then, Tuesday, May 12, the day of that second earthquake in Nepal. I was walking to the office. It was 5am. I was thinking of this speech, of what I could say, of what might be meaningful to you. As I walked, I was taking pictures of the street art, some of which even showed scenes of that first earthquake just two weeks earlier, along with messages of survival and resilience — it was very powerful. And that’s when I saw it, a message in spray paint that captured what I want to say to you, and what I want to say to myself, every time I feel discouraged, every day: Start where you stand. That’s what the wall said to me in all its spray-painted splendor: Start where you stand. I learned later that this is the title of a poem by Berton Braley. I don’t know if my Nepali street artist had read it, but no matter, because today it’s ours, we’re going to take it, we’re going to use it.
What happens if we don’t start where we stand? That means we are accepting this. We are accepting that one in three women will continue to experience violence. This, I do not accept. We might not see the results in our lifetime, but it is still worth a fight.
We all stand here every day, all the time, at the center of our own little red circle. Maybe we should commit to making our own circles safe for women. One circle? Maybe that isn’t much. All of our circles put together? That could be something! Because the earthquakes won’t stop and the wars won’t stop. But sexual violence, it will stop, if we start right now, right here, where we stand.