They told me to shut my mouth, to keep my head down, never to have the courage to question what They were saying. Whatever word that came out of their mouth was expected to be welcomed by a silent nod and some words scribbled down, signifying that we are taking notes of what was just presented.
They told me that questions hurt and that curiosity is not beneficial for the educational process. Why raise your hand so much, why to interrupt the general rhythm of the class. Why would all the questions that I would have liked to asked, had to be linked to me questioning the knowledge and the capabilities of the teachers. I did not understand.
Many of Us kept their heads in the ground, no matter what words were cutting through their dignity. They were called stupid, idiotic and asked without any sign of empathy why on Earth did the decide to study Mathematics and Computer Science. Many of Us cried in silence, during the breaks, cutting through the dense smoke of the bathrooms, where the stress was relieved through and endless number of cigarettes. Passed around, one dose of tobacco moving from one to another, only to share Our tears, our concerns and the dissatisfaction with the way we were treated. Revolt was kept inside of Us, we were planning to stand up for the ones that were discriminated in class, but when the bell rang and They came into class, all of those revolutionary ideas vanished into thin air.
Us, the revolutionaries, were now back to being the obedient cattle marching towards a cliff, following Them. No more questions, no criticism, only approval that made them smile.
Do not raise your hand.
Do not ask any questions.
Do not try to question my knowledge and abilities.
Do not have the courage to stand up.
My time of being in a public high-school in Romania, in a small town, passed, but the memories and the behaviour of Them still stick with me nowadays. Growth is not only about the positive comments we receive in life, about the kisses on the forehead or about the letters that our friends write to us when we achieved something significant. Growth arises from the ashes of the most dreadful and hurtful things. Being in a school of obedience taught me to raise my hand, no matter what. Being caught behind the bars created by Them gave me the possibility to search for ways of breaking them.
In the end, I escaped, but so many of Us are still there, trapped. No questions, no hands risen, only silent nods and words of approval and compliments. No creativity, as it can kill your chances of walking on the universal path, only memorization.
No courage, no motivation. No sign of growth.
“Are you a feminist?”, I was around twelve when I turned abruptly towards my sister and asked her this question. “Are you a feminist?”, I said, with evident judgement in my voice. In simple terms, I did not understand what it implied other than it being an inflamed topic to address. I did not understand why my sister said “yes” so naturally to this question, so I counteracted her yes with a “why”. In retrospect I have discussed this conversation with my sister, and all she remembered was the thought that she was not going to push this on me. This was something I had to grow into on my own. And I did, as the years progressed I turned my judgement into support, but I could not say the same for the judgement that had first turned me away from feminism. So I adapted, if I was asked about my stance I would always say “yes, but”. I felt a need to emphasise and justify my wish for a non-discriminatory society with the idea that feminism includes all. I would define feminism as “equality for all”. However, ultimately I was in the wrong.
It is important for me to emphasize that a movement cannot be adapted to the needs of individuals if it will mean a change of the main or core of the movement. Feminism is gender equality, but not just gender equality; it is specifically the need for women to have equal rights in society, within their own gender and in comparison with others. It is a legitimate wish, which does not aim to undermine other people or their needs. Feminism is about the woman, however, that does not create a space where other movements and ideals cannot take place. The problem, on the other hand, arises when it is not allowed for women to engage in public space, or that ideals are created only to undermine feminism. When other legitimate problems are used to undermine the legitimacy of the wishes within feminism, a problem arises for both sides. Believing that it is only possible to take place in one movement at a time like the equality struggle, and therefore not being able to call yourself a feminist, is a detrimental misunderstanding. Many adapt feminism or repel feminism because they have created or been told an alternative truth to the actual movement and the core of it. Do not take the stamps and bitterness of the past, change has not always been welcomed, but it truly creates healthier societies. I hope one can have enough integrity and ability to reflect so that one can see past the “red-throat” or “girdle racing” stamps, or the need for exclusion, so that women who want equal opportunities do not feel stigmatized and shunned away from unity.
I let my comfortability downplay the importance of a movement, because I felt apologetic due to benighted ideas. However, conclusively, being able to own a word that implies solidarity with and entire community is a powerful mechanism, and that is why defining yourself as a feminist matter.
In thinking about the #metoo movement, and what feels like a new wave of feminism; which might well be the one positive thing to come out of Trump’s administration; I recently recalled experiences of sexual harassment in my own life. In hearing and reading about many women’s experiences of sexual abuse or harassment, their anger and sense of previously being silenced, I also remembered the anger I have felt, the resentment, and sense of fear, violation and shame, and I realised I have rarely told anyone about the experiences I have had, especially the more serious. I wondered why, and I think that it has something to do with the fact that I had somehow found a way to excuse and normalise what had happened, because that was easier than talking about it, and that I had unconsciously, in some way blamed myself for what had occurred; for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being alone, for wearing the wrong clothes, for looking in the wrong direction. And I thought that if I had felt this way about my more minor experiences of sexual harassment, how much worse and more damaging these feelings could be in far more traumatic instances of sexual abuse and rape.
I grew up in the UK walking home from school, being whistled, leered and beeped at from men in cars and groups of soldiers (from a nearby army base), on a regular basis; because… young girls, children actually, wearing school uniform are objects of sexual fascination? Because the men thought it was funny? Because they wanted to pay me and my 13 year old best friend a compliment? Because they approved of the Latin inscribed on our blazers – ‘Sine Labe Decus’: honour without stain? (How’s that for an all girls’ school motto?). I hated it. I felt threatened. I wondered what would happen if there was a traffic jam, the vehicle stopped, the men could get out, get close to us. I wished we were invisible.
I remember as a university student happily walking through a park in the middle of the afternoon from a friend’s house to my hall of residence, walking past a man sitting on a bench who was watching me, who I suddenly realised, feeling as though my blood had frozen in my veins, that he was exposing himself and masturbating. I remember thinking to myself that I shouldn’t have looked so happy and been wearing shorts and vest (it was summer), that somehow that was the reason he was doing what he was doing, and I should have been more aware and careful, and not happened to look at him. This man followed me out of the park and then stood on the other side of the street outside my house for a long time, watching. I remained afraid to see him again when I left the house the whole time I lived there, because he knew where I lived.
Older, I was on a very busy bus, sitting down in the aisle seat, and I realised slowly, to my disgust, that what I had assumed was someone’s arm or bag innocently but persistently touching my shoulder while they stood in the aisle and moved with the ups and downs of the bus, was in fact an old man with an erection rubbing himself against me. I sat still, again frozen for a moment, unable to understand how someone could do this, on a crowded bus, to a young woman, whom he didn’t know. Who gets off like that? Who thinks that is okay? So I do the best I can in a country I have been in for only a couple of weeks, whose language is not my own, and I stand up and try to look at him in the hope that I can shame him with a stare. Except I’m shaking and too afraid to really look, in case he does something worse.
A little older still, I am on the London underground in the early evening, and a man decides to get on a very busy carriage behind me, where he proceeded to grope me repeatedly in what was a very confined space, where I could hardly move or turn around. When I managed to say loudly, ‘Get you hand off my ass!’, no one around us said or did anything, and he just got off and moved down the train to the next carriage at the next stop. A normal guy in a suit, going home from work. I blushed, was ashamed and humiliated as I called him out, and I curled up inside when everyone around me acted as though I had said nothing at all. I remember thinking to myself, I shouldn’t have got on this carriage, it was too busy. It was only later I became angry as I realised I was blaming myself, that I was thinking that I should have done something differently to prevent something happening which the man was completely responsible for. No, he shouldn’t have got on. Or if he did, he should have kept his hands to himself.
The last incident I will recount happened last Saturday afternoon, here in Duino, where I was honked at by a truck driver, who gestured he was jerking off through the window of the cab of the truck, while I was walking along in trainers, baggy old jogging pants and a waterproof jacket. I thought, getting older, I had somehow gone off the radar of idiotic men who want to threaten me with their penises from inside their moving vehicles. I thought maybe times had changed. Guess not.
This is by no means a conclusive list of my experiences, and does not describe the more serious incidents that have happened to me, for obvious reasons. These are, in one sense ‘everyday’, minor incidents. I think this alone is enough to make my point. That sexual harassment happens a lot. That it comes out of nowhere, no matter where you are, what time of day it is, what you’re doing, what you’re wearing or how old you are. It happens to a lot of women (as well as other genders). For a lot of their lives. It is sometimes easy to shake off, sometimes even laughable, but is also frightening, demeaning, threatening and violating. It affects how we feel in our bodies and about our bodies. It affects how we feel we are seen and judged and respected. It affects our self esteem. It affects how safe we feel. It affects how we make choices about what we say, where we look, what we wear, where we go, who we see, how late we stay out, if we go alone, because at least in part we have the knowledge and fear that these things, or worse, can happen. And worse, I think those who are affected by sexual harassment or abuse, tend to somehow blame themselves, feel embarrassed, ashamed, mortified or disgusted about it, feel an internalised anger that has no real outlet, no arena in which to say, ‘Hey, that is not okay’, not least because there is a fear of what the repercussions (or lack of them) could be in that wrong place at the wrong time, if something is said then, or later. And this is a damaging silencing, which allows these acts, and worse, to continue.
I think there is power behind saying #metoo, even if that is all it is. There is a great power even in just speaking, in voicing, in saying this happened to me. In saying, even if not directly to the perpetrators, it is not okay, don’t do that. Saying #metoo, I think, is not (as some commentators have criticised) some twisted version of a badge of honour, a way to gain attention, a way to attack men in general, a ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, or an attempt to make all forms of sexual harassment, assault and rape of a similar gravity. It is not for me about vilifying and publically destroying people as a form of revenge. I think it can become that, just as it can also be about beginning to get some form of justice for survivors of sexual assault. But it is also simply, and powerfully, a chance, a symbol of an ability to say what might, for so long, have been unspeakable: actively suppressed, laughed at or trivialised, ignored, contradicted or attacked. It is a new way to begin talk about and acknowledge an aspect of largely female experience that is still not confronted enough. A way to raise awareness about how often this happens to many girls and women. It’s a way to say to anyone that hears don’t do that, it’s not okay. And it’s a way to say to others who are survivors, hey, you’re not alone. And hopefully, eventually, somehow, it may help to change the culture around damaging sexual attitudes and behaviour towards women.
By Laura Summers
Sexual harassment and violence against women:
- ‘The Longest War’ by Rebecca Solnit, in Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket Books 2014.
- ‘One in five women have been sexually assaulted, analysis finds’, by Alan Travis, in The Guardian, 8 Feb 2018, (Accessed 8 Feb 2018)
- The website of the original ‘metoo’ movement founded by Tarana Burke:
- Article on the ‘metoo’ hashtag taking off after Alyssa Milano’s post in late 2017:
‘The Movement of #metoo: how the hashtag got its power’, by Sophie Gilbert, in The Atlantic, 16 Oct 2017, (Accessed 8 Feb 2018)
The end of the world in 2012 was not to be understood as a final Armageddon, but it was the end of love”, is what Hans Söllner, a German Reggae artist, had to say when he was asked what he has to say about doomsday theories. In my personal life 2012 does not only coincide with the projected Maya apocalypse, but also with me entering the second year of middle school, which correlates with all my class mates suddenly getting smartphones for Christmas and their birthdays. And secondly, 2012 was the year in which Tinder was released.
It may not be the case that Hans Söllner thought very carefully about it, but after thinking about the thesis in more detail, I’ll have to admit that his intuition did not lead him to an untrue conclusion. Saying that it was precisely the year 2012, that may overdo it a bit, but it is a good rough estimate for when technology reached and conquered even the youngest minds among us. As it is not my goal to depict the advancement of technology as being a step backwards in human history, so do I want to uncover the sides we very often tend to disregard when our minds are too caught up in admiring the new iPhone or answering seventeen different people on Messenger at a time.
The evidence is over-whelming when it comes to Social Media, Smartphones and Laptop – most of us are severely affected by at least some minor form of behavioural addiction. The subconscious action of checking your e-mails every few minutes, refreshing the Messenger App even though you do not need to or scrolling down the same Instagram feed for the third time in an hour – this kind of behaviour cannot be justified by reason, but explained by addiction. It may not have the same effects on your physical health, but the process of repetitive dopamine releases in your head is directly correlated and comparable to you smoking cigarettes, drinking wine or even the cocaine addiction a wall street banker.
While I am not writing now to hold the companies behind this responsible for this mass addiction of the people, at least not today, do I argue that I do not know love like my parents do. When my dad told me that he confronted his first girlfriend by writing her a love poem and hide it in her locker, I voluntarily refused to tell him that I tried to seek her attention by liking all her Instagram pictures and randomly answering to her snapchat stories. All that while I had to text with ten other people at the same time: I mean how could I possibly risk losing all my precious Snap streaks?
And no, I am not capable of giving you data on how more marriages fail, or less long-term relationships work out among teenagers because of excessive smartphone use, I can only, just like Hans Söllner, tell you about a feeling I got. I can only tell you that the butterflies feel a lot more real when they are triggered by a person in front of you, than by a picture on your smartphone screen. I can only let you know that receiving a letter fills me with joy, while I am trying to limit my phone use as much as possible because I see how it is taking over my life.
By Jonas Baumgartner