Edited extract from ‘#MeToo and the Uneven Distribution of Trauma’ by Shakira Hussein, published in #MeToo: Stories From the Australian Movement (Picador, out now). Republished here with permissions of the publisher and author.
#MeToo and the Uneven Distribution of Trauma
It wasn’t much of a knife. A household kitchen knife, probably not even the most dangerous knife in his mother’s cutlery drawer. That’s not a knife, Paul Hogan had scoffed. That’s a knife!
I didn’t have a machete tucked into my belt ready to bran- dish on the street in London all those years ago, and I was a skinny young brown woman, not a sun-bronzed Aussie bushman, but I tried to act the tough guy – girl – all the same. ‘You’re going to have to try a lot harder than that, if you want to frighten me.’
But it was a knife, of course. And it did frighten me, though I didn’t allow myself to admit this until much later.
When the police arrived, he told them that his intention had only ever been to harm himself, not me. And that the incident was ‘just a domestic. She’s my sister.’ That line had proved depressingly effective in providing bystanders with an excuse to back away during similar such scenes, and it worked its magic with the police as well. ‘From different mothers,’ I pled, trying to remove my plight from the category of just a domestic and place it in the slot marked stranger danger. ‘I hardly know him!’
As though he’d have been more entitled to control me if we’d grown up under the same roof.
But ‘it’s just a domestic’ won the day. ‘We really prefer people to sort these things out among themselves,’ the cop told me. ‘Why don’t you talk to your father about this?’
In 1990s London, where this and many similar scenes took place, stalker-brother and I were both racialised as Asian on the basis of our father’s Pakistani background. Commentators such as Julie Bindel and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claim that police in the United Kingdom have been reluctant to act upon reports of gender violence committed by ‘Asian’ men for fear of being accused of racism. However, I attributed the inadequate police response that I experienced to common-or-garden sexism compounded by racism, rather than to excessive racial sensitivity. ‘Asians’ – whether offenders or victims – were simply not worthy recipients of police resources. Much better for all concerned to leave us to sort it out among ourselves.
I received a more sympathetic hearing from friends and family, but the response from some white listeners brought further complications. I was told that the stalker-brother’s behaviour was typical of Asian men, that it was part of their culture, that it was how they were raised.
That’s racist, I thought but did not say. Instead, I would list off all the ‘good’ Asian men in my life, men who were a source of strength and support. Of course, my understanding listener would respond. Not all Asian men. Rather than argue the point, I learned to be cautious about sharing information.
And so the cycle rolled on – the threatening public scenes, the futile conversations with the police, the even more futile conversations with my father, the excruciating conversations with the members of my social network who were targeted by the stalker- brother after he stole my address book, the long, convoluted letters of apology from the stalker himself. I took it all in my stride until I was safely in Canberra with 17,000 kilometres and the Australian immigration system between me and the stalker-brother. In the placid surrounds of the national capital, I fell apart.
‘Falling apart’ took the form of flashbacks in which I heard the stalker-brother’s footsteps just behind me and felt his breath against the back of my neck and debilitating panic attacks that left me retching and hyperventilating with fear. It didn’t help that though he no longer knew my location, his harassment and threats continued via letters and phone calls to my friends and family. (I’ll find Shakira if it’s the last thing I do.) Distance provided only limited protection, given that the stalker-brother had already proved himself willing to travel around the world, following false breadcrumb trails that I had laid. I could not afford to lower my guard.
Fear is an experience in humiliation. You are diminished, reduced to a quaking, huddled creature. You cower, you tremble, you flinch at shadows. You probably compound your problems by making bad decisions, which is how I found myself a low- income single mother of a young daughter within a few years of my return to Australia – the predictable outcome of an ill-judged relationship.
That particular bad decision was my salvation, however. My daughter was (and is) a joy and a delight, and so for her sake as well as my own, I got my shit together; I learned how to fake it until you make it; I rendered myself functional. I ran headlong towards the source of my fears, researching and writing about gender violence and racism. I learned terminology like ‘the bystander-effect’ to describe the way that onlookers fail to take action when men like my stalker-brother commit acts of violence in public; ‘the double- bind’ between racism and patriarchy that confronts women from racialised minorities who campaign against sexism in our communities, only to find our words used to stigmatise our collective identity – a hazard that became even more acute for Muslim women in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
I learned about other girls and women who had paid a much heavier price for this double bind than I had. There was twenty-yearold Banaz Mahmod. She sought police protection from the Kurdish-Iraqi relatives who had harassed and threatened her after she left her abusive arranged marriage and established a new relationship. In the video of her police interview, Mahmod looks strained but determined as she describes the reason for her fears: ‘People following me – still now, they follow me.’ It was one of four times that she sought police protection. However, the police constable who interviewed her (after she was hospitalised following her father’s attempt to kill her) threatened to charge her with criminal damage for the window that she had broken during her escape, and described her as ‘dramatic and calculating’ in her report. Unable to find the safety and support that she needed, Mahmod returned to the family home in the belief that her mother could protect her.
This trust proved tragically misplaced. Shortly after her return home, her parents left her alone in their house, where she was raped and murdered by associates of her family acting on instructions from her father and uncle. ‘In the future or at any time, if anything happens to me, it’s them,’ she had said. Her words during her police interview proved to be an eerie forecast.
In the words of Independent Police Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams, ‘Banaz Mahmod was a young woman who lost her life in terrible circumstances. It is clear that the police response was at best mixed.’
I was far less isolated than Banaz Mahmod and faced far less formidable circumstances, but the police responses to my reports of harassment and abuse could also be described as ‘mixed’. And the harassment and abuse kept coming. Stalker-brother was the culprit who inflicted the most long-lasting damage but he was not the first or the last, not by a long way.
I had heard older women – nearly always white women – complain about becoming invisible with age, unable to attract attention from waiters and shop assistants. I can’t wait, I thought. I’d always been aware of my hypervisibility as a brown girl (and then woman) in a predominantly white society. During child- hood visits to India, I revelled in the unaccustomed experience of melting into the crowd, at least until I opened my mouth or until my white mother took my hand. Standing out makes you a target; I looked forward to standing out less as I grew older.
But as I approached my much-anticipated middle-age, I developed another form of vulnerability – physical disability as a result of multiple sclerosis. Instead of becoming invisible, I stood out more than ever.
Just as younger women experience sexual harassment and abuse at a higher rate than older women, disabled women experience it at a higher rate than do able-bodied women – a point illustrated by reports from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Law Reform Commission, as well as a host of international bodies. I am of course far, far less vulnerable than are many other disabled women. I do not live in residential care, or require help in dressing and showering. I am basically mobile and self-supporting. But I use an elbow-crutch when walking outdoors or taking public transport – an open invitation to the helping-hand that becomes a quick grope, over before you realise what’s happened, let alone have time to react.
My experiences of abuse and harassment have never stopped, but I had quarantined all these experiences behind a cordon where they could be managed. Young men, old men, white men, men of colour, familiar men and strangers, successful men and losers, drunk men, sober men, and more recently, invisible men who I know only by their racist hate-mail (given the regularity with which one of the most unnerving correspondents mentions penises, I think it’s safe to assume that he and probably most of his ilk are male). Men who crossed my path in public space, in private space, in the workplace, on the street, in cyberspace. Angry men throwing stones at me during a post 9/11 Islamist demonstration in Pakistan; the muscle-bound skinhead at a Reclaim Australia rally in Melbourne; the random sleaze outside the pub; a keyboard warrior holding me personally responsible for the mutilation of little girls’ clitorises. The cordon was not impenetrable, of course. Every now and then, one arsehole or another would break through and reduce me again to the frightened wreck that I had been in the immediate aftermath of that long-ago trauma. But mostly they were contained: the cordon proclaimed you’re going to have to try a lot harder than that if you want to frighten me.
Then #MeToo unleashed them all.
I found it difficult to understand why this should be so, given that the issue of gender violence is never far from my mind. This, after all, was supposed to be the revolution that I’d been waiting for – yet I was left feeling isolated rather than connected, helpless rather than empowered. A movement that was celebrated for enabling women to speak their truth via social media drove me, for a time, to abandon social media entirely.
In its early stages, many of the most visible participants in the movement underestimated its capacity for reviving difficult memories. Like some other trauma ‘veterans’ who could not bring themselves to reopen their wounds online, I fretted about the implications of not posting #MeToo. By not adding our names to the hashtag, were we saying that we had somehow miraculously escaped this near-universal ordeal? Were we letting the side down by not visibly lending our support to this collective effort to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem?
I was alienated, too, by the inevitable focus on famous white women in a movement that was meant to represent all of us. The belated acknowledgement of the origins of the ‘me too’ tactic in civil rights activist Tarana Burke’s conversation with a teenage black girl who was being abused by her stepfather (just a domestic) only partially redressed this imbalance. The drawback of the campaign intended to highlight the magnitude of the problem is that it risks overlooking the uneven distribution of trauma.
Studies undertaken in Australia and around the world show that family and sexual violence disproportionately affects young women as well as women and girls from marginalised communities, with Indigenous women, women of colour, disabled women, and trans women suffering higher than average levels of gender abuse. As Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Lenora Johnson point out in their report for the 2018 Annual Review of Sociology, ‘Scholarship on sexual violence reveals it to be a cause and a consequence of inequality, not only on the basis of gender but also along lines of race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, age, ability status, citizen status, and nationality’. And the most vulnerable women also face the most challenging barriers to reporting, not least the knowledge that doing so may be used to justify the disciplining of their entire community, as illustrated by the Northern Territory intervention to ‘rescue’ Indigenous children. I feared that the outcomes of the #MeToo movement would be similarly uneven, with privileged women reaping most of the benefits, and women from marginalised communities bearing most of the backlash.
No one provided support to Sadif Karimi (as she was then known) in the months after #MeToo went viral, although (like Banaz Mahmod) she sought help on multiple occasions. In fact, according to a report in The Age, her name was altered from Ziba Haji Zada to Sadif Karimi on the birth certificate forged in order to conceal the fact that she was only fourteen at the time of her marriage in her home country of Afghanistan, fifteen at the time of her arrival in Australia, and seventeen when she gave birth to her daughter and was found months later with fatal burns in the backyard of her in-laws’ home in Melbourne. At the time of writing, her death is still under investigation, with her husband and his family claiming that she set herself alight.
A troubling report in The Saturday Paper described a series of failures by the Victorian domestic violence service Safe Steps, to which Ziba was referred after being found wandering the streets with her baby in her arms, having been thrown out of her husband’s home. Safe Steps provided her with crisis accommo- dation but failed to follow procedure by calling her on a daily basis to check on her welfare. The Saturday Paper quoted a source as saying ‘Sadif was treated the exact same way that a rich white woman would have been treated if she called for help. But Sadif couldn’t speak English . . . had no support network, no system at all that could help her.’ She returned to her in-laws’ home after a week and was told during subsequent phone calls to Safe Steps that she was no longer their client and therefore did not have a case manager anymore. Overstretched service providers simply do not have the resources to provide women and girls like her with the time and attention that their situations require.
Tarana Burke has said that she founded the movement as a way for survivors to reach out to others and tell them that they’re not alone. But Ziba and her infant daughter were entirely alone during the final weeks and months of Ziba’s life.
Clearly much more is needed than obligatory storytelling and the downfall of a cluster of high-profile offenders. Resources need to be directed towards the most vulnerable women and girls, and the multitude of possible responses to the experience of abuse need to be acknowledged and validated. In Burke’s words, ‘We shouldn’t have to perform our pain over and over again for the sake of your awareness.’ Name and shame, we are urged – as though, like Rumpelstiltskin, an abuser can be conquered through the power of speaking their name. In some cases, of course, this has proved to be true. In others, the spell is less easily broken. Nearly a quarter of a century later, I still can’t bring myself to say the stalker-brother’s name out loud. And rather than name names, I invented a fairytale for my daughter featuring a monster whose name was an anagram of the name of a man who had sexually harassed me: then all at once, the struggle was over and the monster lay dead at their feet, with both their swords at his throat.
But this is a fairytale. A fantasy. The monsters are not vanquished and the struggle is not over.
Alibhai-Brown, Y, 2012, ‘Why as a Muslim and as a mother, I believe it’s so damaging to hide from the truth about Asian sex gangs’, Daily Mail, 21 November, available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/ article-2236081/Why-Muslim-mother-I-believe-damaging-hide- truth-Asian-sex-gangs.html.
Armstrong, E, Gleckman-Kruk, M and Johnson, L, 2018, ‘Silence, Power and Inequality: An Intersectional Approach to Sexual Violence’, Annual Review of Sociology, July, Volume 44 pp 99-122, available at: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev- soc-073117-041410.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2018, ‘Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia 2018’, AIHW, 28 February, available at: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/domestic-violence/family-domestic- sexual-violence-in-australia-2018/contents/summary.
Burke, T, 2018 ‘Me Too is a movement, not a moment’, TEDWomen, November, available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/tarana_burke_ me_too_is_a_movement_not_a_moment/transcript.
Bindel, J, 2010, ‘Girls, gangs and grooming: the truth’, Standpoint, December, available at: http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/3576/full.
Cunningham, M, 2018, ‘Afghan teenager who burned to death came here as child bride on fake papers’, The Age, 24 June, available at: https://www. theage.com.au/national/victoria/afghan-teenager-who-burned-to-death- came-here-as-child-bride-on-fake-papers-20180723-p4zt6e.html.
McKenzie-Murray, M, 2018, ‘How our crisis hotline failed Sadif Karimi’, The Saturday Paper, June 30, available at: https://www. thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/health/2018/06/30/exclusive-how- our-crisis-hotline-failed-sadif-karimi/15302808006485.
McVeigh, T, 2012, ‘“They’re following me”: chilling words of girl who was “honour killing” victim’, The Guardian, 22 September, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/22/banaz-mahmod- honour-killing.