Screaming into the void

In Miriam Toew’s remarkable book, “Women Talking,” the women members of an isolated religious sect come together to talk about what they should do in response to the realization that, over many years, most of them, as well as many of their daughters, have been drugged and raped by some of the men who are also part of the community.  

Sarah Polley, who turned the book into an Academy Award winning film, has talked about the mistrust with which the film’s title was treated by various people she encountered while promoting it. As she put it in one interview:

“For some reason, the very act of women talking sounds offensive to some people . . . . It’s not called ‘Women Shouting,’ it’s not called ‘Women Scolding; it’s called ‘Women Talking.”

When she accepted her Oscar for best adapted screenplay last month, Polley noted, somewhat drily:

“I just want to thank the academy for not being offended by the words ’women’ and ‘talking’ being put so close together.”

No angry women

Women talking is one thing; women’s anger is quite another. It’s just not permissible. When women get angry in court, for example, they are routinely dismissed as vengeful and/or liars. This is as true for a sexual assault survivor involved in a criminal trial as it is for a survivor of intimate partner abuse engaged with family court.

If that sexual assault survivor, rather than presenting as people like to see a victim – afraid, timid and submissive, perhaps a bit weepy – brings her righteous rage at what has been done to her into the witness box, her evidence will be less likely to be believed.

If that woman in family court dares to express her anger towards her former partner for the abuse to which he has subjected her, others will think that she has made up or exaggerated the stories of abuse in an attempt to get what she wants from the legal process or to get back at him. If there are children, she might well be accused of parental alienation.

When I practiced law, I used to routinely tell my clients not to express or show anger during court appearances; no matter the fact that they had every reason to be angry. Every time I told a woman who had been victimized by male violence not to let anyone see her anger, a little part of my soul disintegrated.

Now, when I train frontline workers who support women through the family court process, I tell them that women’s anger is viewed with great suspicion, and that they should prepare their clients to hold their anger close to their chest when they have to appear in court. The disintegration of my soul continues.

And, yet . . . .

Respecting rage

In her book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Soroya Chemaly writes:

“A society that does not respect women’s anger is one that does not respect women – not as human beings, thinkers, knowers, active participants, or citizens.”

Chemaly notes that when women express anger they are seen to be violating gender norms and are “met with aversion, perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent and unlikable.” Once a woman has been categorized as angry, says Chemaly, everything she has to say is discredited.

While I had not read Chemaly when I was encouraging my clients to hide their anger – no one was writing about the positive aspects of women’s anger in the 1990s —  it seems that my advice was strategically sound. And, as Chemaly and other feminists writing about women’s anger observe, if that woman is also marginalized by reason of race, Indigeneity, religion or class, her anger is even more suspicious.

In other words, the more reasons a woman has to be angry, the less she is permitted to be so.

Letting it go

Waterloo, Ontario, artist Mary Abdel-Malek Neil is doing something to help herself and other women let go of some of the bottled-up anger and frustration many of us carry around. She has started a collective called Screaming into the Void, which brings together women once a month, usually on the full moon, to scream away their troubles. As she said in a recent interview:

“the releasing of something like a scream, which we’re not allowed to do usually as women . . . so we tend to bottle it in and it gets trapped in our bodies.. . . The idea that we can actually go somewhere and release it means that we are releasing that tension from out of our bodies.”

Screaming into the Void finds out-of-the way spots for their gatherings so they don’t inadvertently startle anyone, but also so they don’t feel judged for what they are doing.

It sounds like a good approach to me, and if there were a chapter of Screaming into the Void near me, I’d likely join in for a session or two, but we need to do more.

Let’s transform society’s negative reaction to women’s anger into an appreciation for it as a positive and creative force with the potential to create a just society for all of us, where anger  — men’s and women’s — is less often needed.

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