WMC Women Under Siege

One threat too many: Where do we go from here?

I’m sitting in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris having just opened an email from one of Women Under Siege’s writers. She’d sent me a copy of a threat she’d received that scattered chills up my arms and down my legs. The sender said he was coming for her; he’d kill her, that “little bitch.”

My neurons sparked—the email set off the ones that had been active recently dealing with the numerous emails my friends and I have received. It harkened back to the hacking of my personal website with a misogynist message, which told me to get the “f--- back to the kitchen,” the same day I published a piece co-written with Gloria Steinem about men and rape in The Guardian.

I’m sitting in the Paris airport because I’ve just come from Tunis, where I was speaking at UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day conference. One portion of my work there was talking about the kinds of sexualized violence and threats women face in their lives as journalists. The rest was about press freedom and how Women Under Siege is bringing forth the stories of women facing rape and other kinds of assault in war in Syria and elsewhere.

This all dovetails with the fact that this week is the launch of the Nobel Women’s Initiative International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict—an initiative on which I am an advisory member. But dovetailing implies smooth confluence, and that’s not how I’m experiencing any of this.

The email was the last shot fired of too many to bear.

I would like to tell you a story a man I know told me in Tunis. This man—I’ll call him Jim—doesn’t live in Tunisia. He lives in the trenches of the fight for global press freedom; he is a man I believe is doing good things for the world. I’m not going to name him here because he told me this story during one of the conference’s breaks, and while I am confident he wouldn’t mind me citing him, I’d rather not without his consent (which has been difficult to nail down in transit). His story has been shaping my thinking for a few days now, and I would like to put it down for you here.

Jim was working on a project training young local journalists in the countryside of Central America. His team was teaching local citizens in a house set among the deep green hills of that region. The house had a local caretaker, who had a wife and six children. I don’t know what this man looked or sounded like, but I may know a little bit about how he thought.

Jim and the caretaker often engaged in conversation and Jim learned that the caretaker had planned for his six children to only remain in school through the sixth grade. One child in particular, though, seemed to love reading and learning. The same child had a problem with his sight, untreated. Jim offered to pay to send the child to an ophthalmologist—he believed the boy should remain in school and wanted to offer what he could to make this happen.

No, the caretaker said. Just, no. My children will help me in the fields and go no further in school, he said.

Around the same time, the caretaker’s wife began to take an interest in the activities of the journalism training. She began to listen in on sessions, picking up what she could. Jim was very happy to see, he told me, that this woman was clearly excited to learn among the other students, who were male.

But that, Jim said, was what broke the caretaker.

The rest of this story may not surprise you: The caretaker moved his family from the house soon after that. Gone into the deep green countryside.

Schooling for his boys was one thing the caretaker could control. His wife, he ultimately realized, was another. Together it was learning and access to information that he withheld from his family. In the dark they will remain.

Here is why I am laying before you this story, the email threat, World Press Freedom Day, and the Nobel Women campaign.

Because we must start looking with a zoom-lens viewfinder at control.

Whether it is of women’s minds or bodies, it is what many of us are struggling to end every day, every minute, and failing much of the time to do. Whether through documentation, writing, telling or otherwise, it is the unhealthy addiction to control that a select number of men have to it, as Gloria and I wrote in our Guardian piece, that has to be put to an end before women can live without the pain and fear caused by sexualized violence.

If leaving a conference about the sending and receiving of information brings the news of yet another email telling yet another woman that she is on a hit list of women who will die because of their thoughts, if speaking about the threats women face in their work results in a journalist from the former Soviet Union sequestering herself with me because she has finally found an ear that will listen to how her boss, after making sexual advances on her, calls her a “dirty slut,” if one more woman is prevented, no, pulled, from a moment’s possibility of education, employment, or advancement and treated like property, an object of control, how can I say we are not, as a people, failing each other?

Oh, I know this is cynical, especially when so many of us are heading home from Tunis, having spent a few days convening to try to further the world’s ability to receive information, as well as the hopeful launch of the Nobel Women campaign.

But I believe we are not getting anywhere until we call it like we see it. And the way I see it at this moment—from within one negative of time frozen in this shiny, glass-laden airport—is that we are failing for the moment. Yet I also see, thankfully, that we’re still trying.

So how about we agree to look for inspiration and support to the Stop Rape campaign, which is being spearheaded by the remarkably capable Nobel Prize laureates Mairead Maguire and Jody Williams, among others? These are the women who brought about an end to the troubles in Northern Ireland and, globally, the land’s pockmarking with human-planted landmines, respectively. What if I spend a few days—as I did recently in Oslo—among women on the advisory committee of the campaign from Sudan, Colombia, Burma, Brazil, and so on in a room hammering out a way forward in the fight against rape in war and realize that we are united in a fight—an exhortation, an entreaty, a declaration—that we have decided that it is time to clarify that we will not take any more violence, intimidation, or diminishment in places in which we are still vulnerable—war, relationships, the workplace—what then?

The goose bumps have begun to subside and a fiery series of questions has begun to blister.

Can we stop failing as women and men and come together and take a few steps here and another few there and begin to dance until we all have partners or groups that link ourselves to a collective feeling of flight, a soaring, flying-through-zero-gravity feeling of flight, of taking off and up, instead of fight—which will by then have metamorphosed into a sort of swirling sensation of an easy-flowing downward stream that comes from optimism, from effort, from results, in which we experience moments of exhaustion but also moments of joy? In which pain and fear caused by men toward women is no longer what we live on a daily basis? In which neither of us controls the other but instead chooses to accept and give support?

What then?

More articles by Category: Misogyny, Online harassment, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexual harassment, Sexism, Activism and advocacy



Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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