On Her Shoulders: A Call to Stand with Survivors

I have just finished reading reviews of ‘On Her Shoulders’, Alexandria Brombach’s documentary on Nadia Murad, the human rights activist who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.

From the New York Times to RobertEbert.Com, the almost exclusively male reviewers gave halfhearted write-ups on a movie so powerful that I felt anxiety in my chest while watching. The reviewers, shying away from challenging the culture around sexual assault, took the movie on its surface, commended Nadia’s bravery and quietly moved on.

But if we quietly move on – as our culture suggests when it comes to the rights and dignity of women and girls – we’re missing an opportunity to question our response to sexual assault. We’re missing an opportunity to better support survivors. And we’re missing an opportunity to resist the subtle misogyny that inspires a “three thumbs up review” of a movie that dares questions how we treat survivors of sexual violence.       

Nadia Murad is a young Yazidi activist who is known as a survivor of sexual violence in conflict.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a make-up artist. She never wanted to leave Iraq. Never wanted to be an activist, never desired the public light.

Then ISIS, targeting the Yazidi minority, came to her village. They killed Nadia’s family, destroyed her community, and abducted, tortured and trafficked her until she narrowly escaped.

But ‘On Her Shoulders’ does not highlight Nadia’s background. Instead, it reveals that Nadia is telling a story that she does not want to tell.

Part of her reluctance is reliving the terror, and the other is dealing with a media that is more concerned with her rape than her advocacy.

She answers questions that distract from ending sexual violence in favor of focusing on the act of sexual violence itself. Her goal is to prevent such atrocities, and yet she is asked about the details of the abuse of her body.

Even in the midst of #MeToo, sexual assault is still seen as a sexual act rather than an act of power and control. The objectification of women is a deeply rooted cultural norm. So when we encounter a survivor of such extreme violence that no one dares justify it, the media defaults to the pornographic interest around the act.  

Nadia knows this. Yet she answers these deeply personal and objectifying questions because she recognizes that any attention, however misdirected, provides the opportunity for advocacy. She survived the assault of ISIS, and now she is surviving repeated retelling in pursuit of justice and prevention.

How can we, as individuals living in a culture that still objectifies female bodies, better support survivors and resist the framing of sexual assault as desirable, justifiable or entertaining?       

We need to change how we receive the stories of survivors.

We need to believe them, and we need to focus on what they want us to know, not on what our voyeuristic society wants to know. We need to shift from the male gaze to the human gaze, where we see survivors as individuals with dignity and not as a victims whose assault exists to incite our imaginations.  

Nadia, as such a public figure, is giving us the opportunity to do this. We can stand with her by reading her book, watching ‘On Her Shoulders’ and supporting Nadia’s Initiative, which advocates for victims of sexual violence and works to rebuild communities in crisis.

We can support all survivors by speaking out against any framing of assault as desirable. I will walk out of movie theaters when rape is sexualized, and I will not cast a vote for anyone – man or woman – who perpetuates this culture of victim blaming. We can question and disagree and create change within our own families and communities. And, of course, we do not need to swallow “three thumbs up” reviews of topics about the dignity of our bodies.

I’m fighting – and writing – back.  

Nadia is battle-weary, but still she soldiers on. ‘On Her Shoulders’ reveals the burden of her fight and challenges us to support her, and all survivors who have become reluctant heroines for our sake. She may not be the last girl to survive sexual assault, but if we raise our voices together she could very well be the last girl to speak out alone.   

After Disaster Struck Indonesia, I Volunteered to Help

When an earthquake struck Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 28 September 2018 at around six in the afternoon, I was in a shop around the area of Tondo, East Palu, buying snacks with two of my friends.

I heard a roar, and seconds later the ground swayed. There were people riding motorbikes falling on the streets. I rushed home to the hilly area of town.

Along the way I saw many people already on the side of the road crying. Fear enveloped my heart. I wanted to get home soon.

Once I arrived, I saw a cracked building with its contents scattered. That night there was another earthquake. I was forced to sleep on the road in front of my house.

Previously, I had ventured into the house to pick up a sleeping bag and change of clothes. Four more earthquakes came after that. I tried to call father and my brother many times but I couldn’t contact either of them.

People started to come up from the coastal area. Men were carrying gallons of mineral water and many were wounded and drenched.

We heard that there had been a massive tsunami on the coastal area. Hearing the news, I cried hysterically. I was now even more afraid, because my father lived on the coast.

I almost ventured down to find my father. However, my neighbors and friends tried to calm me down and convinced me not to go right away.

At five o’clock the next morning, I rushed to look for my father. When I arrived, I saw there was no house standing. The cars were all badly damaged by buildings.

I saw a lot of dead bodies. This made me cry and keep looking for my father until I met a teenager, who said he was on the mountain. I ran up to about five kilometers from the location of the tsunami. Then, finally, I found my father.

A month after the disaster, I was invited to join Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (IPPA) in Central Sulawesi as a youth volunteer, to provide counseling on reproductive health as well as HIV.

I thought to myself, this activity is noble and I can help others this way. I have knowledge about HIV from my Intra-Campus Organization at university. Now, I can share this knowledge with my peers so that they can protect themselves for the sake of their future.

I told myself: I’m still able to undergo activities, I have complete organs, why don’t I use this to help people in need?

Who else will help them, if not people who care about the lives of friends affected by this disaster?

In addition to providing reproductive health and HIV counseling with other IPPA youth volunteers, I advocate for the rights of young people. After they have had counseling, we ask what obstacles the youth experience. We also listen to the complaints they have, such as lack of clean water or being harassed.

After listening to the young people, I – along with other volunteers – follow up on the issue to the concerned institute. This provides security and comfort for youth, and means that their sexual and reproductive health and rights are being fulfilled.

Written by Indri Walean, Youth Volunteer at IPPA Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. 

20 Maya Angelou Quotes to Inspire You

Maybe you’ve already seen the Google Doodle, but today would have been the 90th birthday of the incomparable Maya Angelou.

A writer, poet, activist, singer, feminist and champion of civil rights, Maya Angelou’s life and writing continue to offer a rich source of inspiration and advice. Here are 20 pieces of wisdom from an extraordinary woman:

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.”
“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.”
“Seek patience and passion in equal amounts. Patience alone will not build the temple. Passion alone will destroy its walls.”
“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”
“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done, to try and love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
“The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.”
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”
“In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats – maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats – but we are much stronger that we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be.”
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”
“Nothing will work unless you do.”
“Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with acts of kindness. Continue to allow humour to lighten the burden of your tender heart.”
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
“I’m grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another life.”

To learn more about the life and work of Maya Angelou, treat yourself to one of her incredible books, or watch the documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

Female Role Models

The female role model has become a powerful actor in the digital age we live in. By the female role model, I mean the bloggers, actresses, Instagrammers and artists who are young women and have other young women and girls as followers. Through social media, it is now incredibly easy stay up to date with people who interest you and see their every move and thought.

A discussion has begun based on this phenomenon: does great responsibility come with great power? In Sweden alone, there have been multiple occasions where young women have been questioned and told they are not behaving like good role models for young girls. It might be because they pose in pictures with a cigarette in their hand, or say inappropriate words in podcasts. Some have even faced criticism for taking baths, because it’s bad for the environment.

This way of thinking can also be found in criticism about TV-series that are close to reality, like the Norwegian series SKAM and Lena Dunham’s Girls. The well-liked feminist character Noora in SKAM has been blamed for falling in love with an alleged ‘bad boy’, because as a feminist, of course, she shouldn’t fall for someone like that.

These demands on ‘role models’ puts young women in a position where they can no longer be regular human beings who make mistakes and misjudgements, and who don’t always have everything figured out. A female role model is expected to be perfect in every way, and if perfection is not upheld it’s argued that it negatively affects young girls. Young women are also expected to be and act like role models, even if they did not choose this position themselves or ever claim to be ‘perfect’. When young women become famous they are automatically viewed as role models and subsequently have certain standards to uphold.

So the question we must ask ourselves is this – is it better for young girls to have perfect role models to look up to, or role models that show them reality? When trying to create an equal society, I personally believe that it is more important that young women can live their lives without being judged than it is for girls to grow up with the idea that women have to be perfect in order to be accepted by society. For example, I think that the idea of females being flawless is more harmful for young girls then seeing a picture of Alicia Vikander smoking a cigarette.

It’s clear that this is an issue of equality when we consider that these kinds of demands are not thrust upon men in the same way. I think it’s always important to keep in mind whether the same criticism would be given to a man in the same situation. We need to let women choose for themselves whether they want to be role models, and if so what type of role models they want to become.