Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual violence and assault.
Di Lebowitz is a Hong Kongese author. Her book The Marks Left on Her (Onwe Press) is out now. The book was inspired by the lack of diversity within the global 2017 #MeToo movement (it's important to note that the term 'Me Too' was actually coined by Black activist Tarana Burke in 2006 as part of her work with survivors of sexual violence and then adopted as a Twitter hashtag by the movement).
The Marks Left On Her charts Lebowitz's own experience with sexual violence as a mixed race immigrant woman – a perspective that is often missing from the survivor stories we hear.
‘You look cheap, men will think you are easy, easy for sex.’ This was what my mother said to me as I got in the car after an evening out with friends. I was sixteen.
Some people may be horrified – how could a mother say something like this to her daughter? But to my mother this was a perfectly legitimate response to the cropped halter neck top and tight trousers combo I chose to wear that evening.
I was furious at the time, but I wasn’t surprised by my mother’s comment nor what it implied. As a Hong Kongese woman, I had grown up in an environment where these kinds of comments weren’t only normal, but it was a family’s way of protecting their young daughter’s chastity.
I had become so accustomed to phrases like: ‘Cover yourself up. Don’t sit like that, cross your legs. Cover your cleavage. Skirt is too short. You cannot wear that, or you will tempt the men. You cannot look like that or they think you are easy.’
Growing up in Hong Kong, I was taught to believe that whatever happened to, or with, my body was entirely my responsibility. If men ogled at my chest on the train, it was my fault because my cleavage was showing and had invited their unwelcomed eyes. If I was groped, I had made it easy for them to do so because of my ‘sexy’ outfit or my flirtatious behaviour. It was I, not the men, who was to blame.
This way of thinking was so deeply indoctrinated into my psyche that when I was seventeen and my ex-boyfriend sexually assaulted me, I immediately blamed myself.
Not only had I convinced myself that it was impossible for ex-boyfriends to rape their ex-girlfriends, but it was my fault. We had moved to Paris by then and I had whole heartedly adopted its liberal Western ways in my behaviour and dress, but now I was being punished for it.
If I had listened to my grandmother or my mother, if I had followed their Hong Kongese ways, he would not have done this to me. This was just some of the toxic nonsense in my head at the time.
The burden of guilt and shame silenced me, so I said nothing and shared nothing. I was afraid if I told my mother, it would validate what she said to me about how I dressed or behaved. It would prove that the culture I had been raised into with its skewered views about women were right. I was also afraid of what telling my mother would do to her, how she would blame herself for not supervising me closely enough. I was afraid of what the potential backlash would be – how she or whomever she told within my family would view me.
I was so convinced that it was my fault, I chose not to report it to the police. I had witnessed first-hand how Parisian police officers sniggered at my broken French on the occasions when I was lost and needed their help. I told myself they wouldn’t take me seriously; they would judge me or simply not believe me. My sexual assault was a secret I was too afraid to even admit to myself.
Then #MeToo happened. It was like I had been holding my breath all this time and finally I could come up for air as I read countless women’s stories. I didn’t feel so alone and with each story shared, I was slowly being unburdened of my guilt and shame.
I didn’t feel so constrained by my self-imposed silence, instead I felt compelled to share my story. But every time I had drafted something to post for #MeToo, I deleted them straight away. I felt stupid for writing it. Who would want to read it? I’m just a nobody, immigrant mixed-race woman writing about something that happened sixteen years ago. Each time I was about to tap ‘send’, the fear of exposing myself, of being judged, critiqued or trolled was debilitating. So, I left it.
As the social media tsunami of #MeToo started to settle, the idealistic hope I felt early on began to dwindle. I couldn’t help but notice how little media attention was given to stories about women of colour. When I did manage to find #MeToo stories about othered women, it felt like they had glossed over the complex intricacies surrounding race and culture. I felt disheartened, because I wasn’t sure if #MeToo could speak to women like me in the same way it speaks to white women.
This lack of authentic representation was one of the many reasons I decided to write my story – albeit at the time it was only intended as a concluding chapter of my recovery. But as soon as I finished my manuscript, I kept returning to the same question – why is there such a lack of othered women’s stories and what is still keeping me from sharing mine? I felt that #MeToo has to be inclusive of all women, or not at all.
It takes tremendous courage to speak your truth and to share something as traumatic as sexual assault because as soon as it’s made public, it is subjected to comment and scrutiny. But for women like me, who have been brought in a paradigm of shame, guilt, and patriarchy, it can feel even harder.
On the one hand, we are faced with the very real risk of family backlash – such as how we may be blamed for bringing shame to our family or community, how our relatives would perceive us as a result of the sexual assault or even the potential harm that sharing it would cause.
On the other, we question whether our story would even fit in a #MeToo narrative that does not reflect our race or culture because when we don’t necessary feel we belong to the wider society, what reasons do we have to believe our story would? On top of that when we see white women aren’t believed, when they too suffer from victim blaming, we have little faith that we – the othered women – would fare any better.
Sometimes when we’ve stayed silent for so long, it can feel easier to continue to do so because we can’t fight a battle on both fronts – at least that was how it felt like for me. I broke my silence and decided to finally free myself from the trauma of my sexual assault only when I felt safe enough to talk about it.
The first person I told was my closest friend and mentor who incidentally is also white. She listened without any assumptions; with such compassion and love that she gave me the courage I needed so I didn’t have to hide from my sexual assault anymore. She didn’t ask me questions about why I didn’t tell my mother – nor what support I did or didn’t get – because she was culturally sensitive enough to understand this would not have been an option.
This is the power of female friendship – one that extends beyond boundaries of race or culture, that recognises the other and says, ‘I see you. I hear you and I will do whatever I need to help make your voice heard.’
I won’t pretend to have some grand solution to this, but I do believe in sisterhood. I believe in its driving force in promoting a more inclusive conversation about sexual assault. I believe in its ability to help us achieve a feminism that we can truly call intersectional.
So where do we go from here? For starters, white women can help by recognising their positions of privilege and using them proactively to create space for othered women to be heard. And when othered women aren’t being heard, they can help by adding their voice in support.
After all, the voice of the many is harder to ignore than the few of the marginalised few. Instead of ignoring race or cultural differences, they should be embraced with compassion and an open mind; one that makes no assumptions about our personal narratives. They can start by simply asking how they can help because this means we are ready for a change.
We may be a long way, but I am hopeful that we are making small but important steps in the right direction.
Di's book The Marks Left on Her is out now.
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