Telling our stories

During the four days I spent at the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission hearings last month, I listened to a number of panels of experts talking about intimate partner violence, and participated in one myself. So immersed was I in the richness of what I was hearing that I did not notice the obvious, until the executive director of an anti-violence organization turned to me and said:

“Isn’t it wonderful to sit here day after day, listening to women talk without a single man interrupting them?”

Once I woke up to this obvious reality, I thought about just how rare it is in public spaces for women’s voices not to be pushed aside and silenced by the louder, insistent voices of men. There still seems to be lots of mansplaining needed.

The inquiry, of course, also heard from men –men who do good and important work in the area of gender-based violence and who had valuable contributions to make – but there was joy to be had in a few days where the only voices we heard were those of intelligent, well-informed women.

Staying silent

Movements like #MeToo have made it easier for survivors of gender-based violence to tell their stories, but easier is not the same as easy. Many survivors struggle with whether or not to speak publicly about what has been done to them.

In one of her essays in Run Towards the Danger, Sarah Polley achingly describes her decision not to speak up about the assault she was subjected to by Jian Ghomeshi when she was 16 years old:

“Should I be embarrassed that he had hurt me? That I had been living alone at too young an age? That bad things had happened to me? That I had a body? . . . I made the decision not to come forward. Now, years later, I think I can finally articulate the reasons for my silence: . . . perhaps most important (and most painful and humbling to admit), I knew that I wasn’t strong enough. . . .

“If I had told my story publicly at the time, here is what I would have wanted to say: I blocked things out, I hid things, I was ingratiating towards him, I didn’t behave in any of the ways a ‘good victim’ is supposed to behave. I don’t remember a lot . . . But I remember his hands around my neck. I remember him causing me pain. I  remember saying no and trying to resist and that not being enough. And that, despite all my other lapses in memory and faults in my character, I know for sure.”

Women talking

In Miriam Toews’ novel, Women Talking, it is through using their voices — itself a subversive act in their closed Mennonite community –that the women are able to decide what to do after they discover that men in their community have been drugging and raping them for many years. They start by determining that they have three options: do nothing, stay and fight or leave. They quickly dismiss the idea of doing nothing, and ultimately, after countless hours of talking, sharing their stories about what has been done to them, thinking about what justice looks like and considering their obligations to the tenets of their faith, decide to leave.

Through talking can come action.

Emily Doe was the name given by police to a 22-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted outside a frat party at Stanford University and discarded behind a dumpster by the young man who had assaulted her. In her memoir, Know My Name, she discusses her decision to publish the book under her real name, Chanel Miller:

“The decision sat heavy before me: keep hiding or disclose my name. . . . I [knew] that I was not going to let the fear of what men might do dictate what the rest of my life was going to be. . . . I did not know the path ahead, but I was now fully aware of the person who’d be walking it. That was enough. . . . On September 4, 2019, my name and photo were released.  . . No more fragmentation, all my pieces aligning. I had put my voice back inside my body.”

Keeping women silent

Many roadblocks remain for women who want to speak out about the violence visited upon them. Some are rooted in long outdated but still powerful social attitudes that survivors of gender-based violence internalize: fear of not being believed; of being judged and found wanting; of being blamed; of being ostracized.

But there are also systemic forces at play to silence women; in particular, publication bans and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), both of which I have written about here before.

Survivors of gender-based violence should never be criminally charged for violating publication bans, which exist to offer them privacy and protection. The law and court practices must be changed to bring an end to this way of silencing women from speaking about the harm done to them.

Public institutions, especially post-secondary institutions, need to stop using NDAs to settle sexual misconduct cases. An NDA silences the survivor and enables the abuser by keeping what has happened a secret. Prince Edward Island is the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass legislation limiting the use of NDAs in cases of harassment and sexual misconduct. All provinces should follow this lead.

Women have powerful voices and important stories to tell. When we can tell them, we heal ourselves and others, we inform our communities and we contribute to the work of ending gender-based violence.

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