Trigger warning: This article involves discussion of DSK protest, including stories of rape survivors and references to police violence
We fight for a small space – though it is also a big space, to hold all that it must – where our experiences are ours and are real.
As a rich and powerful man – flanked by eight bodyguards, protected by a steel fence and dozens of cops – is given an exalted platform to rehabilitate his image as an ‘economic expert’, whitewashing his abuse of women’s bodies, we create a makeshift platform from a megaphone and a wall. As students queue up to hear DSK speak, with their tickets, their two forms of ID, the body search, the surrendering of phones – looking smug because they are upholding the principle of free speech – we hear survivors of sexual assault speak out and break the silence that was imposed upon them. We create a space, there on the road, where women can speak and we will listen – they shake as they speak, and so do we.
Because it is our experience. We are here in solidarity with Diallo and DSK’s other victims, but these are also our experiences, our daily lives – the vast majority of women will have experienced sexual assault or harassment, and the threat is ever present. Survivors talk of silencing – the disbelieving of their experiences by police, friends, the legal system, psychologists. ‘Were you drunk, did you flirt, maybe you didn’t say no loudly enough, maybe you misunderstood him, he’s not very good at approaching women…’ They call this the second trauma for victims of sexual assault. In isolation we have all been silenced from speaking out against misogyny, rape culture or sexual assault, often rationally protecting ourselves from the harm of the retaliation visited upon us for speaking out.
We have seen this backlash against those who speak out in Cambridge, where women have been told not to protest, not to be ‘shrill’ and irrational, to untwist our knickers and stop ‘whining’, that being raped is akin to leaving your front door unlocked. The weapons that privilege uses to protect itself are petty but insidiously powerful. But this time we find courage from being together, we sustain one another, we create a vocabulary for our experiences, a discourse where we get to tell our own stories, and no one else can tell us what they mean. Outside the Union, we feel our hurt and our bravery as two sides of the same coin. We get angry.
We cry with our sisters and we fight with our sisters – breaching a peace that has long attempted to pacify us with claims that ‘no one listens to an angry woman’. Our bodies are our own. We use them as our only tools, our sisters’ hands reach out to catch us when we climb up high, they hold us safe, their voices are raised with ours. Our bodies are not our own, they are handled, carried, dragged, pushed, punched, leaving myriad bruises in the morning. A violent institution protects a violent man, just as they have protected so many violent men in the past. And the police tell us we mustn’t put ourselves in danger, that they are keeping us safe while throwing us to the floor – if only we had stayed indoors, if only we hadn’t shouted, resisted, this might not be happening.
Women keep safe – stay at home and, for god’s sake, shut up!
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law.
But we didn’t. We broke our isolation, we broke our silence. Together we reclaimed our voices. That space we created opened a space in me, and I will carry that solidarity within me as I walk alone outside of the safe spaces.