In the past few days, our newsfeeds have been thick with stories of sexual assault and harassment. I’m betting your social media timeline, like mine, was “me, too” after “me, too” after “me, too.” The campaign — created 10 years ago by Tarana Burke as a grassroots movement to empower and help survivors in marginalized communities, and recently re-introduced after numerous allegations of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein came to light — encourages women to stand in solidarity by sharing stories of sexual violence in their lives.
Burke says the campaign is for survivors to share their experiences with each other. It was never the intention to have women relive terrifying experiences to show men how harrowing our world can be — this was only a side effect that called men in, to begin to understand what existing as a woman in this world looks and feels like.
Amid this outpouring, many men have asked, “What can we do? What can we do to dismantle these systems of sexism that have been normalized, rationalized, and spread around our world like a disease?”
I can offer some help. But before I do, understand that each woman and each community is complex in their humanity, and needs to be heard in different ways. (And women who chose not to speak out, you have no obligation to anyone, especially on social media.)
These recommendations are not blanket statements, but suggestions based on my own experiences as a cisgender heterosexual Indian woman. Here's what I can tell you:
1. Stop catcalling. Do not encourage it, watch others do it, or take it lightly.
Catcalling is not flattering. Catcalling is a show of power, one women know all too well. At best, it reminds some women of times when they felt powerless around men — when they were young, outnumbered, or forced to do something they did not want to do. At worst, it is one of those times. For many, it reminds of us of violence, of times when seemingly harmless interactions with men on the street led to being followed, threatened, inappropriately grabbed, or much worse.
Do you know how it feels to carry anxiety and trauma with you while walking down the street, simply for being yourself? It is not something for women to “get over.” It is something for men to understand and change.
(Hear me when I say that making rape or sexual assault allegations against black men has led to brutal deaths because of the racist ways rape has been used to incriminate and perpetuate false stereotypes of black men. That is another article entirely, but it deserves our attention.)
2. Intervene. (Don't “rescue.”)
Recently, I was walking home from the grocery store when two men began trailing me and yelling obscenities. Panicked, I ran. They followed. Two other men in front of me looked back at us, and crossed the street away from me. Another man looked back at me while turning a corner. No one stopped to help.
Fear can compel us into fight-or-flight mode, or into inaction, or into punching the man who is bothering us. Understand that fear affects different people in different ways, and sometimes asking for help is not our first thought. I wish the men in front of me had intervened, and used their privilege to say or do something instead of turning away. Maybe they thought it wasn’t serious — maybe they thought I could take care of myself. I could in this situation, but only because it didn't escalate to worse. We need to know we can trust onlookers to step up.
Your primary goal should be to let the aggressor(s) know that you see them, and that you've got my back — not theirs.
3. Don’t confuse tradition with sexism.
Every woman in every culture experiences sexism differently. Having intersectional conversations about sexual assault is crucial. Yet in so many cultures in which I’ve existed, women are taught to be docile, dutiful, and submissive in order to be feminine, to marry, or to gain respect. To non-Western eyes, we become “Americanized” if we have an opinion. This is just the unquestioned norm.
So I’m asking you to challenge that and call it out in your own communities. I know it’s hard. I know culture and family and tradition are difficult paths to maneuver. But too many men have been “given ownership" of too many women in the name of tradition. If a woman is sexually assaulted, this leads to justifcations like, “She shouldn’t have been alone,” or “She shouldn’t have been without her father or brother,” or “She shouldn't dress that way.”
Work to create a world where all women are safe and respected, rather than simply shielding some within the systems and cultures of ownership that men created in the first place.
4. Do not wait to have a daughter to finally respect women.
You can respect us because we are human, with all of the glory, nuance, and mess that comes with it. You do not need to imagine a woman as your mother or aunt or cousin to respect her. You can respect her because of the soul that she carries and the life that she lives. Her relationship to you, her partner, her father, or anyone else should not be what defines your respect.
5. If a woman tells you she was harassed or assaulted, do not ever ask her what she was wearing.
Ever. Don’t do it. Women have been assaulted in burkas and in swimsuits, when they were children and when they were old, in every article of clothing imaginable. Women do not exist for your gaze. They exist to live their marvelous life. How you respond to that is on you.
6. Challenge the ways that your religion might silence and oppress women.
Pastors, talk about domestic violence in the Bible. Talk about rape in the Bible. Both of those things exist, but are usually glossed over and forgotten.
In the book of Samuel, Tamar’s half- brother Amnon was obsessed with her. So he lured her into his room and raped her. After the deed, as she weeps, Absalom, Tamar’s other brother, says to her, “Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” (1 Sam.13:20) The story goes on to say that Absalom hated Amnon and later killed him — but we hear nothing more of Tamar.
How are we teaching this story in our churches and homes? In all my years in church, I have not heard one sermon about how this rape affected Tamar. Nor have I heard condemnation of Amnon. I’ve heard condemnation for women wearing leggings and “tempting men,” but never once heard rebuke of Absalom’s dismissing response.
How does this translate for women who have been assaulted?
In the book of Esther, we’re taught that Queen Vashti is a deceitful and defiant woman for refusing to appear before her husband, the king. But in the story, the king and his men had been drinking for days, and she knew, when called to stand before them and "show her beauty," that she would be humiliated (and possibly harmed) in one way or another. She refused to be entertainment, and lost everything as a result.
This story happens daily in our careers, relationships, institutions. How are we teaching this Bible story in our churches and our homes? Is Vashti's story empowering for women, or does the way it is taught reinforce the systems of sexism that we’re trying so hard to dismantle?
You must to be comfortable enough to have difficult conversations. It is the only way that we can make progress in our communities, our cultures, and our countries.
Women can post on social media — we can tell our stories until our voices give out, we can write articles and think pieces until our fingers bleed. But what will you, men, do with that information?
What are you doing to create a world where women feel safe existing, online and off?
It’s up to you to decide how to respond to the glimpses of the pain we’ve allowed you to see.