The Canary in the Coal Mine: Fighting for Incarcerated Black Pregnant Women

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70 this month—and while I light the cake to celebrate, I am reminded of the need to commit the next 70 years fighting to make human rights real for every single incarcerated Black woman.

If the crumbling status of Black America is a telltale sign of the dangers and threats that eventually befall all Americans, incarcerated Black women are the canary in the coal mine—and not just for incarcerated women, but for women across the country. (Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

Black women are grossly over-represented in the carceral system, and they’re at risk for the kinds of brutality and human rights violations that rarely get highlighted when we talk about prison reform. (One exception being conversations led by other Black women—like Kimberle Crenshaw, whose organization, African American Policy Forum, launched the #SayHerName campaign to draw more attention to police violence against women.)

Borrowing from Lani Guinier’s theory that the crumbling status of Black America is a telltale sign of the dangers and threats that eventually befall all Americans, Black women here are the canary in the coal mine—and not just for all incarcerated women, but for women across the country. Incarcerated Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate among all women. They are more likely to be killed, raped and assaulted by police. Yet their experiences are rarely made a priority, except when more laws are being written in order to punish them.

In a world where poor working class Black women were valued and not dehumanized and brutalized, no pregnant person would be sent to prison who requires social services. Instead, that is the exact story of a large majority of women in prison and jail  right now. In a world where the human rights of poor, working-class Black women were fully embraced, we would see a real commitment to ending mass incarceration, especially for the majority of female inmates who committed non-violent crimes and but are punished disproportionately in the criminal justice system.

This isn’t to say that nobody is paying attention to or taking action around improving the conditions and experiences of incarcerated pregnant women. They are. The Dignity for Women Act is at the forefront—and would guarantee that the experiences of incarcerated women align with the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners. Advocacy to end the shackling of incarcerated women during pregnancy and labor has exploded across the country; there are now laws and policies that limit the practice in 22 states, and legislation to do the same in all federal prisons has been introduced in Congress. And even the menstrual equity movement has taken hold for incarcerated women.

The expansion of the carceral system is rooted in the over-policing and mass incarceration of communities of color, particularly Black communities. This is no less true for incarcerated women: Black women are 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than white women and to receive harsher punishments for the same crime, and while women’s incarceration has doubled in the last decades, the numbers of Black women in the system rose by 800 percent alone. 

The complex identities of Black women, and the interlocking nature of their oppression, expose how systems of power and privilege uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, and the struggle for incarcerated people won’t be over until they achieve justice. Black women have a unique story to tell about carceral violence that’s rooted in a history of capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy and patriarchy.

We must start listening—and heed their warnings—if we want to build a better world.

Every year, Ms. sends thousands of magazines to women in prisons and domestic violence shelters. To support our efforts and help us expand our reach—and to show women in prisons that they aren’t alone—please give to our Women in Prisons and Domestic Violence Shelters program today.

Crystal M. Hayes, MSW, is a social work PhD candidate (ABD) at the University of Connecticut. Born and raised in New York City at the end of the civil rights movement, on the cusp of the Black Power Movement and by parents in the Black Panther Party, she lives by the Audre Lorde quote: “your silence will not protect you.” Crystal has more than seven years of experience teaching in both online and on-the-ground social work programs at both the undergraduate (BSW) and graduate levels (MSW).

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The Top 10 Feminist Pop Culture Moments of 2018

The new year is almost upon us—which means it’s time once again to take stock of all that transpired at the intersections of feminism and popular culture in 2018. Since I started doing these Top 10 lists in 2016, I’ve been inspired by the ways that feminism has impacted the culture at large, and 2018 proved to be another stellar year for the movement in the media. These 10 feminist moments shifted the media landscape and echoed across the Internet this year—inspiring, empowering and mobilizing feminists across the country in the process.

#10: Feminists Do Have a Sense of Humor!

With the recent passing of comedian and filmmaker Penny Marshall—who gave us the iconic working-class Laverne from the TV sitcom Laverne and Shirley; her first directed film, Jumping Jack Flash, featuring comedian-turned-actor Whoopi Goldberg; and the humorously classic sendup to women’s baseball during World War II with A League of Their Own—we were reminded that women have long been at the game of great comedic timing and storytelling. This year was no different.

In 2018, comedians Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish treated us to a brilliant takedown of women’s fashions and taboo-breaking moments of female physical comedy when they paired up as presenters at this year’s Oscars telecast. That the Academy Awards have yet to turn to these two hilarious entertainers as obvious replacements for Kevin Hart to host the upcoming show—Black women hosts! Diversity is still achieved!—goes to show that some of our cultural gatekeepers still need to find a feminist sense of humor.

Nonetheless, such humor was celebrated on streaming platforms. Amazon Prime’s Emmy-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel explored the 1950s, when the titular character finds life after marriage when she breaks into the masculine realm of standup comedy; Netflix gave us a chance to savor the biting sarcasm of Hannah Gadsby’s queer standup routine in Nanette. These on-demand feminist media moments proved that women can hilariously punch up to power and assert their much-needed comedic worldviews.

#9: Body Positivity is Powerful

L Brands CEO Ed Razek stepped down this year in the wake of disparaging comments about the exclusion of transgender and plus-sized models from Victoria’s Secret annual lingerie fashion show—he thought they didn’t fit the “fantasy” the lingerie company tries to sell. Meanwhile, pop star Rihanna showed everyone how it’s done during New York Fashion Week. After making a splash last year with her all-shades-inclusive cosmetics line, Fenty Beauty, she expanded her beauty company with the lingerie line Savage Fenty—and proceeded to feature all sizes and complexions at her body-positive fashion show Savage x Fenty, including very pregnant model Slick Woods, who gave birth not long after walking the runway!

The pop star was not the only black woman icon promoting body positivity this year. Despite Vogue’s continued use of photoshopped and airbrushed images, glimpses of different body types and the need for body acceptance filtered through its cultural lens thanks to tennis champion Serena Williams, who graced the January 2018 cover, and pop star Beyoncé, who sat for the cover of the coveted September issue. (A legendary moment that also proved historic, thanks to Beyoncé’s employment of Vogue’s first African American cover photographer.) Both women discussed their embrace of their postpartum bodies and the difficulties they faced with complications after giving birth in the magazine’s pages, and given the rise in maternal mortality rates among black women in the U.S., their candid truth-telling shined a much-needed spotlight on the issue while expanding the conversations beyond getting the “perfect body” back after childbirth—a cultural pressure Beyoncé admits to succumbing to after the birth of her first child. 

#8: A Feminist Princess?

Already topping Google’s list for the most widely searched person worldwide for 2018, and coming in at number seven for Time’s 2018 Person of the year, former Suits actor and mixed-race American-turned-British Royal Megan Markle made cultural waves this year when she married Prince Harry before an international televised audience of 40 million people. The wedding ceremony was marked by inclusivity—from African American Episcopal Bishop Reverend Michael Curry’s stirring sermon, to the Kingdom Choir’s serenading of the bride and groom with the classic standard “Stand By Me,” to a beaming dreadlock-wearing mother-of-the-bride holding her own stately presence opposite the Queen of England—but it was the sight of the bride, an avowed feminist, walking herself down the aisle before being joined halfway by the Prince of Wales, that indicated we might just be getting a different kind of princess for our modern era.

One of the biggest challenges for the now-Duchess of Sussex, who is a champion for women and girl’s empowerment, is to integrate the traditions of British monarchy with her own feminist worldview. “Women already have a voice,” Markle once said.”They just need to learn how to use it.” Given the glimpses of feminism that we have seen from her so far—from her first charity event featuring the recipes of a multiracial community kitchen from the women survivors of the Grenfell fire in London, in her endorsed cookbook, Together, to her championing women’s empowerment while giving an award to the designer of her wedding gown—she is learning well.

Markle is subtly but surely keeping alive her feminist views. While this might represent neoliberal feminism more than radical feminism, it’s a glimpse of a feminist sensibility that just might be mighty enough to clap back against a culture that is more concerned about what she wears, how she cradles her baby bump during pregnancy and if she’s having catfights with the Duchess of Cambridge than how she’s improving women’s lives around the world. Here’s hoping she continues to learn how to use the voice she most certainly knows that she has, especially when too many would rather she be seen and not heard.

#7: Love is the Message

Beyond these heteronormative headlines, this year saw the debut of one of the most transgender-inclusive shows on television: Pose on FX. Exploring Harlem’s Ballroom Culture from the 1980s—which gave us, among many things, voguing and the art of reading and shade—the series from Ryan Murphy and trans advocate Janet Mock balances humor and heart-wrenching drama to flesh out the full humanity of queer communities of color. Mock even made her directorial debut with the episode “Love is the Message,” bringing a trans, feminist sensibility to a nuanced storyline that featured a transgender woman of color played by Indya Moore asserting her womanhood to the cisgender white wife of her love interest, and illuminated the ravaging effects of HIV/AIDS in the gay community during this era.

Not one act of violence was perpetrated against any transgender woman in the show—a relief for the viewers who unfortunately expected worse. Against this backdrop, the extravagant spectacle of the ballroom served as both escape and survival, and a reminder that we can’t have the entertaining and pleasurable aspects of this life without also empathizing with the pain. 

#6: Acing the Bechdel Test at the Movies

Television isn’t the only medium for new and improved representations of women. A recent study showed that women-led films dominated the box office—and those that passed the Bechdel Test, in which two or more women talked about something other than a man, outperformed those that failed. 

Whatever the genre, 2018 proved to be a stellar year for feminist-themed films. It also featured a growing list of women-of-color-led movies, including A Wrinkle in Time, Crazy Rich Asians and The Hate U Give. But most exciting were the ensemble films, in which all-female casts dominated the storylines.

The lightweight heist film Ocean’s 8, starring Sandra Bullock, and the heavier heist film Widows, starring Viola Davis, both debuted to much excitement; an all-female scientific team featuring Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson went on a quest to save the world in the science fiction film Annihilation; and Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone teamed up to form a queer love triangle on the 18th-century court of Queen Ann in The Favourite. Earlier this year, the women of the Africa-themed superhero comic Black Panther also joined forces as warriors, scientists, and international spies to save an entire nation called Wakanda—and 2018 will wrap up with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, hitting theaters just moments after a successful run of the documentary about the same notorious Supreme Court Justice, RBG. 

#5: Rage and Rumblings in Music

2018 will forever be remembered as the year Beyoncé graced the Coachella stage as the first African American woman headliner, bringing all her black pride and HBCU culture with her. But feminist themes blared from boomboxes (and bluetooth radios) all year long.

Ariana Grande’s provocative song and video “God is a Woman” and the rage against patriarchy captured in Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato’s “Fall in Line” were just two of many new feminist anthems to take over the airwaves. Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy testified to her survival instincts—and she boldly breastfed her baby in her music video “Money” in a striking statement that juxtaposed her lactating breasts, often forbidden for public view, to her earlier years as a stripper, often promoted for public consumption. Barbra Streisand dropped her album Walls to protest the Trump administration, while Amanda Palmer’s “Mr. Weinstein Will See You Now” and Gracie and Rachel’s “HER,” a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford, amplified the #MeToo movement.

It remains to be seen if a #MeToo reckoning will take place in the music industry, as had occurred with the movie industry, but the rage is barely contained beneath the surface. The passing of legendary Aretha Franklin was a reminder that she too had a #MeToo story—and raised her voice constantly in defiance with her anthems “Respect” and “Think.” While her funeral included moments of men behaving badly, her legacy can be retooled for women’s constant raging and rumblings. 

#4: A Queer Black Feminist Future

Women music artists dominated this year’s Grammy nominations for Album of the Year, so we also might expect to see and hear more of these rumblings. Regardless, 2018 also gave us one of the most unapologetically queer black feminist albums in recent herstory. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer is both an infectious pop album and a provocative sci-fi “emotion picture,” offering a vision of feminist resistance against systems of oppression while embracing her pansexual liberation. This concept album is rich in creativity, quirky originality and the brilliance of Black Girl Magic. 

#3: Times Up!

The #MeToo movement transitioned to #TimesUp this year—and women across Hollywood partnered with grassroots feminists to fight against sexual assault and harassment. At the 2018 Golden Globes Awards, many celebrity feminists powerfully shared the red carpet with activists including Me Too founder Tarana Burke and made pointed commentary from the stage. The collaboration didn’t end there: industry feminists went on launch a legal defense fund and form an advisory board headed by none other than Anita Hill. 

#2: Oprah Leads the Way

Oprah highlighted the issues of #MeToo and #TimesUp throughout the Golden Globes telecast, but her stirring acceptance speech for the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award gave the movement momentum. Winfrey, utilizing her great oratory skills, demonstrated intersectionality to millions tuning in as she connected the fight for racial justice to challenges to cultures of sexual harassment and violence—and reminded the audience that truth-seeking journalism shares common ground with the women and men who have broken the silence on their experience with sexual violence when she invoked the memory of Recy Taylor, an African American woman who suffered a gang rape during the Jim Crow segregation era and was aided by Rosa Parks in the quest for justice. Her words were a reminder that “celebrity feminism,” at its best, can put its highly visible platform to great use for public consciousness-raising.

#1: Women Leading in Politics and Pop Culture

Oprah’s Golden Globes speech was so moving that the hashtag #OprahforPresident began trending soon afterwards—but while she has not expressed any interest in running for office, other women did in record numbers this year, and they made big waves on social media and beyond.

In November, a diverse group of women were elected to Congress—among them the first Native American and the first Muslim women to ever serve in the chambers. The youngest, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is pulling the curtain back on the political process on Instagram (and getting record numbers of “likes” for living our wildest #SquadGoals). Meanwhile, veterans on the Hill are also having their moments: Maxine Waters birthed a thousand memes when she reclaimed her time; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the focus of multiple films and former First Lady Michelle Obama released a bestselling book and launched the Global Girl Alliance with a video set to the empowering music of Aretha Franklin.

We may not have had our first woman president—and television shows like Scandal and House of Cards may have to indulge this “fantasy” for a bit longer before it becomes reality—but across Twitter and Instagram, women are finally taking the reigns in politics—and snagging headlines across political media.

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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The Top 15 Feminist Films of 2018

On the heels of Wonder Woman‘s box office success, 2018 ushered in a new wave of feminist films on the big and small screens. Here are 15 of our favorites from the year—spanning genres, but breaking boundaries all the same.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

The star-studded Mamma Mia sequel released this summer turned out to be a celebration of feminism in every way—with a plot focused on female friendships and a single mother protagonist content to strike out on her own. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again may not be hard-hitting cinema, but it also pushes back on many of Hollywood’s tired tropes for female characters—and leaves its women viewers singing, dancing and feeling empowered and affirmed.

Capturing the Flag

2018 proved how important the fight for democracy is—and Capturing the Flag, directed by Anne De Mare and produced by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, told the stories of the activists working on the frontlines to protect it. The documentary follows three voter protection workers in North Carolina during the 2016 election—examining the impact of voter suppression laws and the challenges everyday civilians face trying to make their voices heard. Capturing the Flag is a warning sign and a call to arms all its own: If we want to control our futures, we need to fight like hell for the ballot. (Read more about this film on Ms.)

The Darkest Minds

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s dystopian action thriller about a generation of kids who have to fight being locked up by the government after gaining mysterious abilities broke barriers for media representation in the industry. Based on a bestselling book series, The Darkest Minds features a female protagonist—a girl of color who also happens to have a unique superpower, and a sense of duty that compels her to use it to fight for freedom.

The Hate U Give

Released one day after the death of its legendary feminist screenwriter, Audrey Wells, and based on the acclaimed New York Times bestseller by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give brings the Black Lives Matter movement to the big screen in a female-led story about the urgency of speaking out and rising up. After Starr Carter, a black student from a poor neighborhood, watches police kill her childhood best friend, she is determined to find the courage to fight back—even if it means making her prep school peers uncomfortable and taking on the system.


Michael Myers is back—and determined to right the misogynistic past of his horror franchise. In the Halloween remake released this year, we’re reintroduced to Myers’ victims, who turn out to be fearless and confident women. Jamie Lee Curtis comes back to haunt the killer and avenge women everywhere, taking on not only her own assailant, but the patriarchy in the process. With motivations often compared to survivors who speak up in the #MeToo movement, Curtis tries to make sure Myers can never harm another woman again, drawing her power from the other women he preyed on and using this strength of sisterhood to confront him. This is the Halloween thriller feminists want: One where the patriarchy gets smashed, and women survive.

Black Panther

The titular hero in Black Panther is a man—but the women of Wakanda stole the spotlight of Ryan Coogler’s groundbreaking Marvel film this year. Wakanda’s powerful all-women security force and female political leaders are driving forces in the plot and on the ground; women in Wakanda are warriors, often portrayed as the smartest or bravest members of their community, and they fight alongside men, even though they don’t have superpowers. (Read more about this film on Ms.)

The Bleeding Edge

The Netflix original documentary The Bleeding Edge, from award-winning filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick (of The Hunting Ground and Invisible War), explores the disturbingly unregulated medical device industry—and the disproportionate danger it poses to women’s lives. The film tells critical stories about the tragic implications of medical sexism, and it gives viewers a glimpse into the inside workings of the often women-led groups fighting back. Viewers also gain insight into how to be more critical and informed patients, and the ways in which they can advocate for themselves in the waiting room. (Read more about this film on Ms.)

Proud Mary

It’s true that the main character in Proud Mary is a paid killer, but she’s also a feminist icon in her own right. Her story, brought to life by the one and only Taraji P. Henderson, put a refreshingly multi-dimensional black, female character at the center of an enthralling adventure—and reframed classic notions of power in thriller films.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians was just another beautiful, funny love story to come from Hollywood in 2018—but Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel made headlines for smashing box office expectations while having an almost entirely Asian cast. The film sparked conversations about the “appeal” of movies and stories centered on non-white characters, and brought new life into Kwan’s engaging trilogy of fictional books about endearing and complex characters.

On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex was released on Christmas day—which we’re confident was a purposeful attempt by director Mimi Leder to give us the gift we’d been waiting for all year. The fictionalized story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early career makes 2018 the year two films about the notorious Supreme Court Justice came to the fore, and we’re not complaining. On the Basis of Sex is an inspiring, gripping and important film that reminds us how far we’ve come, and how urgent it is that we continue Ginsburg’s powerful legacy. (Read more about this film on Ms.)

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an action film for the #MeToo moment. Lisbeth Salander, its smart and strong protagonist, is hellbent on vengeance—and making right the wrongs done to women. The feminist hero is complex and hard to love, even while she’s beating up abusers and sexual assailants, but her powerfully fearless and badass show of strength in her attempt at feminist vigilante justice will have viewers rooting for her anyway.


Steve McQueen’s Widows puts an emotional twist on the classic heist film: after four women lose their husbands, they find out that their partners died in the middle of a crime spree; left grieving in debt, they have no choice but to rally together and finish the job. The all-star cast smashes expectations of womanhood in every scene as they organize their child care schedules so that they can play out what are typically male-driven schemes, proving just how smart, capable and brave they are in the process.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

When teenager Cameron is found kissing another girl on prom night (in 1993), she is immediately sent to a Christian camp to unlearn her “sins.” The only problem is that Cameron doesn’t actually know how she identifies, and neither do many of the other young adults fighting back against what we now know is so-called conversion therapy, a dangerous process that endangers the lives of real-life queer teens to this day. Directed by Desiree Akhaven and based on the groundbreaking novel by Emily Danforth, Miseducation follows Cameron and her friends as they pretend to “get better” and rebel against hate and discrimination. (Read more about this film on Ms.)

Ocean’s 8

The high-class crime spree Oceans franchise has been taken over by a band of funny, cunning and sometimes crude women—and Oceans 8 is hilarious proof that the formula still stands. (Also, Rihanna is in it. Rihanna!)


The filmmakers behind RBG had more access to the Supreme Court Justice than any filmmakers before, and got up close and personal with her, even as she was working with a trainer, to capture her history and tell her story. Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary is a beautiful nod to Ginsburg and all she has accomplished, and RBG is evidence that there is no need for fiction or dramatic flair in contextualizing the icon—because Ginsburg’s story, for feminists, is magic enough on its own. (Read more about this film on Ms., and check out our RBG gift guide!)

Miranda Martin is a feminist writer and activist and an editorial intern at Ms. She has written for a variety of publications and been published by The Unedit and Project Consent. Miranda recently graduated from University of Wisconsin La Crosse with a major in Interpersonal Communications and a double minor in Creative Writing and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She loves to travel, read, exercise and daydream about the fall of the patriarchy.

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The Top 15 Feminist Anthems of 2018

Looking for something to listen to as you gear up for the revolution in the coming new year? We’ve got you covered. These 15 feminist anthems from just the last year dig into thorny issues like domestic violence and the #MeToo movement, celebrate girls’ empowerment and the power of the single woman, recap the history of the women’s movement, encourage women to love their bodies and empower women to use their voices.

Tune in, turn ’em on and drop a postcard in the mail to your member of Congress.

“Scared To Be Lonely” (Dua Lipa, Martin Garrix)

Dua Lipa gave us a year full of feminist anthems—and although tunes like “New Rules” and “IDGAF” were repeated more frequently on the radio, “Scared To Be Lonely” may have been her best feminist release of the year. Discussing a relationship gone sour, Lipa reminds women that staying in a relationship for fear of being lonely isn’t worth it, and encourages them to disregard a culture that values them based on their relationships with feminist lines just waiting to be danced to.

“Shattering Glass” (Brooke Alexx)

Brooke Alexx’s anthem covers multiple themes—from shattering the glass ceiling to not settling. Content with being a “mean queen girl-boss” rather than a pretty face, Alexx sets the record straight with “Shattering Glass” and proves that feminist anthems can be fun.

“I Don’t Think About You” (Kelly Clarkson)

Kelly Clarkson’s latest might sound like a simple breakup song—but after viewers tune in to the heartbreaking music video for the track, it will sound much different. Set to lyrics about leaving someone you never thought you could, Clarkson’s video depicts abusive relationships—and as she sings “I feel freedom where I stand now, and I feel proud from who I am now, I learned a lot along the way, I love the woman that I became,” we learn that she has become the woman she is today because she left bad relationships that weren’t serving her anymore. In the midst of a landscape in which domestic violence and gun violence are making headlines more often, this is the feminist anthem we needed in 2018.

“I’ll Fight” (Jennifer Hudson)

Jennifer Hudson’s battle cry heard by feminists everywhere was a powerful addition to the soundtrack for RBG, the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg—but celebrates activists and their sisters everywhere. “When you feel you’re taking all that you can take, and you’re sure you’re never gonna catch a break,” Hudson sings, “when it’s dangerous, takes another piece of you, everybody takes all they can get from you, till you’re left with almost nothing left of you… I will be the one to help you carry it.” The last few years have been difficult, especially for women watching as our progress is threatened and sometimes eroded on the global stage—but the resistance has reminded us, too, that we gain strength in solidarity.

“What I Need” (Hayley Kiyoko ft. Kehlani)

Haley Kiyoko exploded on the scene this year, largely due to her strong feminist lyrics and her openness about her own queerness in her work. “What I Need” tells the story of Kiyoko encouraging a partner to come out and be proud of her sexuality, rather than hiding and being ashamed.

“Fall In Line” (Christina Aguilera ft. Demi Lovato)

Christina Aguilera has an important messages for young women: Women do not owe men, society or the world anything. They will be told they need to impress men to find a partner—because “god forbid you know your own way home,” as she sings in “Fall in Line”—but they shouldn’t listen. And although the entertainment industry tells women to derive their value from their sexuality, Aguilera wants to assure girls that there is far more to them than their bodies and sex appeal. “I got a mind to show my strength, and I got a right to speak my mind,” Aguilera declares. “I’m gonna pay for this, they’re gonna burn me at the stake, but I got a fire in my veins. I wasn’t made to fall in line.”

“White Man” (Macy Gray)

Feminist R&B artist Macy Gray came back with a splash this year when she released “White Man,” a frank exploration and airing out of the racism and sexism she faces from white men on a regular basis. In the track, Gray talks back: “Hey white man, I am not my grandmother,” she sings. “I’m from the city Canton, Ohio. You’re hating me and I don’t understand.”

“Queen” (Jessie J)

Jessie J sets body love to a catchy beat in”Queen.” The pop singer calls out the lip service paid to body positivity—and calls on all of us to act on our declarations of body love. Her video puts that call into action, showcasing the beauty in different body types and communities.

“Girls”(Rita Ora ft. Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX)

Rita Ora steps out and steps up queer women’s representation in this song about sexuality and accepting who you are. Alongside Cardi B., Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX, Ora celebrates bisexuality—“I’m 50/50,” she sings, “and I’m never gonna hide it—with a twist on the”kissing a girl” genre. The song’s lyrics are feminist enough, but the video chock-full of displays of women supporting and loving other women earned this song a 10/10.

“Strip” (Little Mix ft. Sharaya J)

The pop group Little Mix shatters ceilings with every new release. Their latest album, released late this year, has too many feminist anthems to count—including a collaboration with Nicki Minaj on “Women Like Me”—but the feminist anthem that deserves the spotlight is “Strip,” which celebrates the body parts many women struggle to love. “Take off all my make-up ’cause I love what’s under it,” the Mix girls sing. “Baby, I’m growing, my stretch-marks are sexy.”

“Ooh Child” (Tiffany Gouché, Chika, Regan Aliyah)

The famous single by the Five Stairsteps was remixed this year by GirlsWhoCode in celebration of the intelligence and power of women and girls in tech. Part of their album titled SISTERHOOD, the diverse and inclusive video for”Ooh Child” debuted on International Day of the Girl with a powerful and important message for young women: to fight for gender equality in every aspect of their lives, regardless of their specialities.

“Mr. Weinstein Will See You Now” (Amanda Palmer)

Amanda Palmer’s #MeToo anthem was technically released in 2017, but the accompanying music video debuted this year and stole the show. Funded by individual donors and produced by a crew of volunteers, Palmer’s video is a defiant feminist act of solidarity for all survivors of sexual assault, abuse and harassment that depicts women rising up together against a backdrop of jarring violence. After Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony, when many women felt powerless, Palmer’s video reminded them of their own power—and the movement which would never stop fighting with and for their equality and justice.

“Here Comes the Change” (Kesha)

“Kesha’s raw and honest 2017 album”Rainbow”was chock-full of feminist anthems—which is why the powerful ballad”Here Comes the Change”should have come as no surprise. Released as part of the soundtrack for On the Basis of Sexthe Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic out in theaters now, the video for Kesha’s call to arms for equality and justice for all was released in the lead-up to the midterms as part of an effort to inspire young people to vote.”Is it a crazy thought,”Kesha asks,”that if I had a child, I hope they live to see the day that everyone’s equal?”

“God is a Woman” (Ariana Grande)

Perhaps the most-played feminist anthem of the year (on the radio, that is), Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman” broke the charts—and its accompanying music video broke the Internet. In a matter of only a few minutes, Grande celebrates sisterhood and declares women to be all-powerful forces of nature, all while rejecting slut-shaming in an unabashed celebration of female pleasure.

“PYNK” (Janelle Monae)

Janelle Monaé’s Dirty Computer album was made up of songs that were each more feminist than the last—digging into themes as myriad as queer identity, racial justice and sisterhood set to a futurist backdrop. In the video for”PYNK,” Monae celebrates female sexuality vis-a-vis some not-so-subtle innuendo and a series of vagina-inspired jumpsuits. “Boy it’s cool if you got blue,”Monae declares.”We got the pink.”

Miranda Martin is a feminist writer and activist and an editorial intern at Ms. She has written for a variety of publications and been published by The Unedit and Project Consent. Miranda recently graduated from University of Wisconsin La Crosse with a major in Interpersonal Communications and a double minor in Creative Writing and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She loves to travel, read, exercise and daydream about the fall of the patriarchy.

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Toward a Better Biblical Understand of Gender, Sex and Patriarchy

“The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people,” declares new guidance for Anglican clergy, “equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptised by one Spirit.”

With its new guidance, the Church of England outlines services to recognize transitions by transgender people and even offers an “Affirmation of Baptism” service to celebrate trans identities. By doing so, the church also joins a slew of other mainline Protestant denominations in welcoming and supporting transgender people.

(Fotografias Emergentes / Creative Commons)

In 2003, the United Church of Christ adopted an affirmation of “the participation and ministry of transgender people” and called for supporting trans civil and human rights; the denomination, which has long observed the Transgender Day of Remembrance, has also developed a curriculum to teach about transgender people and issues.

In 2012, the Alliance of Baptists called on churches and community leaders to work to end discrimination and violence against transgender people, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has likewise issued statements supporting trans people and encouraging adoption of policies to end discrimination against trans people.

Just this year, the USA Presbyterian Church voted to affirm its commitment to the full dignity and humanity of transgender people and people of all gender identities—and while United Methodists have continued to struggle with sexual and gender identity issues, the denomination has appointed a transgender deacon and affirmed the ordination of a transgender pastor.

And although Anglicans themselves are divided—one lay member of the Church’s General Synod even railed against “the falsehoods and myths of transgender ideology”—Bishop of Blackburn Julian Henderson, who authored the document, is standing firm. “We are absolutely clear that everyone is made in the image of God and that all should find a welcome in their parish Church,” he said in a statement. “This new guidance provides an opportunity, rooted in scripture, to enable trans people who have ‘come to Christ as the way, the truth and the life’, to mark their transition in the presence of their Church family which is the body of Christ.”

Beyond mainline Protestant denominations, however, many Christian churches continue to condemn and ostracize transgender people. In 2017, a group of Catholic bishops and other leaders issued an open letter—titled “Created Male and Female”—arguing that all people have inherent dignity, but sexual difference is binary and ordained by God. The letter describes transgender identity as a “false idea” that is “deeply troubling” and calls for policies that reinforce binary gender identities as assigned based on biological characteristics at birth.

In a 2014 resolution, the Southern Baptist Convention stated that “God’s good design [is] that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception—a perception which is often influenced by fallen human nature in ways contrary to God’s design” and reiterated their opposition to “all cultural efforts to validate claims to transgender identity.” Franklin Graham called transgender people “weirdos that want to force themselves into girls’ locker rooms and to women’s bathrooms,” and defended his abrasiveness by claiming that “Jesus wasn’t real loving sometimes.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s student conduct policy likewise explicitly declares that “we regard sex at birth as the identification of the given biological sex of each member of our constituency,” and that “we must view the actions or intentions of those seeking fundamental changes of any kind from one’s sex at birth as a rejection of the biblical and theological understandings to which Southern Seminary is committed.”

Those “biblical and theological understandings” that underpin Christian transphobia are exactly the problem. Affirming mainline churches have embraced trans people within a theology of God’s inclusive love and created diversity—and challenged racism, sexism, homophobia and poverty as well with an intersectional social justice framework that centers on fundamental dignity, worth and equality of all people. The biblical and theological understandings of churches who oppose transgender people, however, are rooted in gender hierarchies.

In traditional Christian thinking, gender and sex are the same, rooted in biology and acknowledged as immutable from birth. According to this train of thought, God has ordained this sex/gender binary, and the gender hierarchies that attend it, with women excluded from ordained ministry and submissive to male headship in the home. This is connected to the deep discomfort about bodies many Christians feel; after all, in many traditions the body is equated with sin and worldliness—and mostly women. The body therefore needs to be controlled, and clear gender roles need to be kept in place to maintain order (read: patriarchy).

Transgender identities challenge the assertions that gender is fixed and contingent upon sex—and with them, the hierarchies of gender that depend on a fixed and inherent gender binary. This challenge upends men’s claim to leadership, power and dominance in the church and the family.

Nevermind that the Bible itself recognizes more than two genders—that eunuchs play important roles in biblical narratives, and that queer biblical scholars have pointed to them as examples of gender and sexual diversity in the text. “There are some eunuchs,” Jesus himself said in the book of Matthew, “which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

By creating guidelines to welcome transgender people in the Church of England, Anglicans have affirmed gender diversity and joined with other progressive Christians in expressing theologies and practices of inclusion rooted in subversive and often hidden histories of the church and hearkening to Jesus’ own words and ministry.

The truth is the biblical witness is much more complicated than many traditionalists admit. One creation narrative tells us that humans were created in the image of God—but if both male and female bodies are the nature of God, could we not then think of God as the one who encompasses all genders and crosses genders? Could we not imagine the transgender God?

As a whole, the Christian church still has much work to do to embody the love of the God it professes. For the progressive church, offering alternatives to traditional, conservative and exclusionary theologies and practices is essential, albeit not enough. Still, the Church of England’s Affirmation of Baptism service for folks who are transitioning is one small start.

Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.

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Five Feminist Strategies for Speaking Up

Speaking in public has always come with certain risks, especially when what you have to say might be controversial. Whether you’re sharing a video on social media, holding a difficult conversation at work or picking up a megaphone at a rally, you’re engaging in public speech—and others will respond to what you’re saying, for better or worse.

In 2018, the risks of public speaking have escalated. Women have received death threats after speaking publicly about their sexual assaults. Government officials are having their security clearances suspended for speaking truth to power. Every day seems to bring new, dramatic displays of backlash against public speech—but it’s also never been more important for feminists to get off of the sidelines and start speaking out.

We can all resolve to make ourselves heard in the new year and at the dinner table this season—whether that’s by raising our voices around friends and family or pushing our legislators to make change in our communities. Your voice matters, and it has the power to change opinions and actions. You may start with an audience of just a few people, but you could start a domino effect. 

In just five steps, you can even start right here.

The world needs us to speak up on critical issues. (Adolfo Lujan / Creative Commons)

#1: Determine what you care most about.

There are so many critical issues that need our attention, from immigration to health care, and it can be hard or simply overwhelming to try and address all of them. Ask yourself which one or two issues you care about the most and why: What is your personal motivation? Who is this really about? Understanding why an issue is important to you and how it’s bigger than yourself will give you more confidence to speak up. 

#2: Learn as much as you can.

Getting involved in an issue means understanding all of its perspectives—even the ones you don’t agree with. Lawyers may prepare for trial by presenting the opposing side to their staff in order to better understand their arguments. Use that model: Spend time researching the issue you’ve chosen to understand all views and the underlying interests people have, not just their positions, so that you can better find common ground. Find ways to connect based on shared interests.

#3: Seek out allies who support you.

It’s hard to speak up when you have to speak alone. Indeed, the #MeToo movement created such a tidal wave of support because women finally saw others like them speaking up about similar experiences. They realized they were not alone and started to see how others could make a difference by raising their voice.

Who in your network already cares about this? Who is in a position to support you and also has their own platform? Find people—friends, colleagues, classmates and family members—who support you and would be willing to speak up alongside you.

#4: Build your skills.

Many times, women hold back from speaking up because they don’t like public speaking or they don’t believe have the right skills. In my workshops, I find that when women build their communication skills, they build their confidence to speak up on behalf of what they believe in.

Do a self-assessment to determine where you can improve your skills, and take steps to build those skill sets—from communication skills to negotiation skills. Ask trusted friends or colleagues for their own assessment. Find a practice partner who you can try things out on and consider their feedback on what you can improve.

#5: Start small.

Start with one-on-one conversations with colleagues or family members, raising an important issue for the first time. See how that goes: What works? What doesn’t? How can you phrase something differently? Learn and adapt.

Then, when you’re comfortable, try writing a blog article or a post on social media. Then, start to write a speech or presentation on the issue. Record and post a video. Look for an organization that represents your beliefs; get involved, attend events and apply to speak at their conferences. Even asking a question in public at a conference will build your skills, your experience and your confidence.

You don’t have to pick up a megaphone on day one. When you’re ready to get even louder, the world will still be waiting to hear from you.

Allison Shapira is a speaking expert and author of Speak with Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others.

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The Virtual Search for IRL Empathy

As the days grow shorter and the wind is colder, nearly every culture has a holiday that celebrates light; over flames, many of us will tell other our stories this season. These tales can foster empathy—and, some experts hope, so can new technologies.

Lisa Genova’s novels make it seem possible. Her background in neuroscience allowed us a window into life with Huntington’s disease in Inside the O’Briens, autism in Love Anthony, traumatic brain injury in Left Neglected, early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in Every Note PlayedAs a doctor, Genova knows the science; as a gifted storyteller, she allows us to experience the challenges her characters face in their diagnoses.

Can we ever understand what others are experiencing? While reading Every Note Played, I felt that I was part of Richard’s family. In another way, Dr. Jason Jerald hopes to make that kind of feeling even easier to access.

Jerald, who wrote The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality, defined VR at a recent workshop that as “a computer-generated digital environment that can be experienced and interacted with as if that environment was real.” He also spoke of it as an empathy machine. “We have the opportunity,” Jerald hopes, “to create and experience new worlds and change the real world.” 

Carrie Shaw began caring for her mom when she was 19 years old and her mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Shaw is not alone: More than 50 million Americans and over a billion people on our planet have some type of disability, and many women become caretakers for elderly parents or family members with serious health challenges. Embodied Labs is using VR to give them critical insight into the lives of the people who rely on them.

Through a new program, Embodied Labs is creating a more caring community of health helpers. They’re using virtual reality storytelling to allow people an opportunity to experience the world of the patient they are caring for. Their team now asks the question: “If healthcare providers-in-training could step into the perspectives of the patient and other members of the care team, would this make them more effective providers?” 

Through immersive VR experiences, you can simulate a mission to fight in an aircraft or learn how to navigate a new spaceship. You can travel the world and try on shoes in different sizes, shapes and colors. But VR can also be a powerful tool for education and opening minds. Imagine the difference it would make to understand not being able to reach for the spoon to feed yourself, or not being able to see on one side of the room. Imagine putting on those shoes and stepping into someone else’s experiences.

It’s encouraging to know that empathy for others can be taught through literature and virtual reality—hopefully, all caregivers can be trained in compassionate ways so they can help their patients and our family members in ways that promote healing and tenderness. It’s also worth considering where else the impact of VR-fueled empathy could take us—and how pivotal being able to walk in women’s shoes could be in the fight to continue changing the world.

Lisa Ellen Niver is an award-winning travel expert who has been to 100 countries. Her website, We Said Go Travel, was read in 222 countries in 2017; her videos have over 2 million views on Roku, Amazon Fire TV and YouTube. Lisa has written for AARP, Sierra Club, Delta Sky, Smithsonian and Robb Report and talks travel on KTLA-TV, but you can often find her underwater SCUBA diving, in her art studio making ceramics or helping people find their next dream trip. 

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The Ms. Q&A: Extremism Won’t Stop Rafida Ahmed Bonya’s Secular Feminism

Rafida Ahmed Bonya’s story resembles that of the mythical bird the Phoenix.

In February 2015, Bonya and her husband, Avijit Roy, were violently attacked by Islamic terrorists while they were visiting their native Bangladesh. Her husband didn’t survive; Bonya got back to the U.S. with severe injuries, a sliced-off thumb and gnawing memories of the attack. But machetes and death threats could not stop her indomitable spirit. Bonya and her husband were targeted because of their writing on issues including atheism, secularism, feminism and LGBTQ rights—and after recovering, she resolved to delve into research and keep on fighting.

In her lifetime, Bonya has waded through many rough patches. She went through a violent divorce before she met Roy; raised her daughter as a single mother and survived cancer. Now, she also lives with the loss of her friend and partner. But it is still difficult to see Bonya as a victim.

Bonya talked to Ms. magazine about fighting for gender equity across borders, secular feminism and her forthcoming memoir.

Eva Anandi / Wikimedia

From a 13-year-old girl who denounced religion, to a Bangladeshi-American writer who survived a violent attack by the Islamists in Bangladesh—tell us more about your journey.

I was lucky to be born in a liberal educated middle-class Muslim family in Bangladesh. My parents encouraged me and my sisters to read and question everything. When I was a 13-year-old, I used to ask my father: Why all religions claim that they are the only “right” religion? Nobody else will go to heaven except for the followers of that specific religion—how could that make any sense? My father told me to read all the scriptures and get back to him.

I went to check out the Quran, Bible, Gita and Torah from the library, absorbing all the information my teenage brain could handle. I went back to him, almost a year later, and told him all of the scriptures sounded like fairy tales. They did not make any sense from a logical point of view, and they all subjugated women to different degrees.

My dad just said: “That’s fine if that’s what you want to believe.” And that was the end of the discussion in my family about religion.

What is your take on the connection between feminism and secularism?

Feminism and secularism are closely connected. All major world religions are extremely patriarchal; I don’t know one which supports equal rights of all human beings. But I also think if we do not talk about the other important factors associated with secularism—such as politics, economy, interplay of gender, religion and local and global power—as part of feminism, the story remains incomplete.

Human societies and cultures are complex and do not work linearly. We need to remember: secularization in the west was a political project, not just an abstract social and historical process, as many secular movements try to portray today. If you look carefully, you will see women’s rights weren’t integral to the movement—they became a piece much later as women started demanding it. There is a prevalent idea in developed western countries that separation of politics from religion is inevitable as “modernity” happens, and gender equality is an enduring principle of secularism—but we are seeing all around us that this is not universal. Secularism is getting rejected by many of today’s populist movements in countries such as India, Turkey, Egypt, Russia and even here in the United States, in many ways.

We should also not forget that many of these powerful secular nations sponsored religious fundamentalism in developing nations and newly democratic countries, especially the Muslim nations, in the post-colonial era as part of their cold war and imperialist strategy. Saudi Arabia, the biggest exporter of Wahabi fundamentalism in poor Muslim countries, is our biggest ally. We are seeing the first-hand result of this in countries like Bangladesh now.

How would you describe it in the context of Bangladesh?

Let’s look at it from a local perspective as well. Think about a female garment’s worker in Bangladesh. She is still fighting for a humane minimum wage. We are talking about millions and millions of female workers in the developing nations who are selling their labor for $50 to 70 per month and living in inhumane conditions. That’s how we are getting cheaper stuff here. As a woman, they have to constantly fight the political, economic and social structures just like the poverty-stricken men do in those poor nations—but then these women have to fight against religion and patriarchy on top of it.

We are seeing a new wave of identity formation based on religion and nationalism—to me, nationalism is also a religion—all around the world. At the same time, It also feels like we have started going backward. We are getting stripped off of the progress we made in last few decades as part of the feminist movement. Women’s right are under attack here in the United States as well.

We are living at an interesting time. I think we need to go beyond just the secularism and feminism binary, though it is one of the important factors, and think about women’s liberation and feminism from a more holistic point of view.

Tell me about your upcoming memoir.

My memoir is still very much in the works, but I guess I can give you a general concept. I have been hesitating to write it because I have always been pretty private about my personal life, but I guess I am growing out of that reservation, especially after the TEDx talk I did in April in the UK.

I will write about two major parts of my life: my upbringing in one of the poorest countries in the East, getting involved with the left politics as a teenager, dropping out of medical school and working with indigenous people and garment workers—which was a pretty big deal for a teenage girl to do in a conservative Muslim country like Bangladesh—and my adulthood in the richest countries in the west, the U.S. and Canada, as a student and a professional, and my life with Avijit after a violent divorce in 2000.

It feels like I have been fighting with the existing world order in various capacities—religion, social change, politics, family. I am particularly excited about telling my story from the lens of a woman who grew up “alongside” Bangladesh; by this, I mean that Bangladesh gained independence shortly after my birth through a bloody nine-month-long war and that Bangladesh and I have grown up hand in hand. On the other side, I want to talk about my adult life in the corporate world as one of the few women in IT; Avijit’s and my journey together as freethinkers, writers and activists.  My story is also about one of a woman in our generation who had to constantly balance and negotiated her way through the period of single motherhood, professional success, passion, politics, competing worldviews and religion.

How did you meet Avijit?

Avijit and I started dating across continents in 2002 after we met in Avijit’s newly founded online platform, Muktomona, for the Bengali speaking freethinkers. We had a wonderful relationship for almost 13 years. Avijit was not only a prolific writer and an online activist with a rational and scientific mind; he was also a feminist. I sometimes feel our relationship was so fulfilling in so many ways that I will not have any regrets if I do not have any other relationships in my lifetime.

Do you think the attack make you more committed to your goals? Do you feel this attack has changed you? 

I don’t know if it made me more committed, but it has changed me in many ways. I do not worry about little things in life anymore, and my 21-year-old daughter definitely appreciates that a lot.

Do you think such terrorists consider fearless women one of their biggest threats? 

The religious community commits itself to the suppression of women—it’s a trend found in all organized religion. A woman’s right to choose is currently under attack in this country, too. It is sad that we are still fighting for the protection of these fundamental rights, whereas we should be fighting for the next steps to achieve equal rights for women.

You asked a question in your TEDx Talks: “Why not me.” Can you explain that?

This realization of “why not me” helped me see my random and brief existence on this planet within the broader context of the universe and was an integral piece of my recovery. I coped by not being perplexed and depressed by the question, “why me,” but by trying to deal with it, and answer it. I tried to understand how events are shaped by each other, how we all impact each other—just as, perhaps, a small butterfly fluttering its wings in one corner can impact the weather on the opposite side of the world.

Even after all that had happened to me, I am still more fortunate than many others. I still have a well-paying job, an extremely supportive and capable network of friends and family and a guarantee of a comfortable life and a platform to talk to the world. Most people do not have those luxuries. We live in a world now where the richest one percent own half of the world’s wealth, but when some of us get lucky to be tucked into this safe and comfortable life we take it for granted and create a personal garden of Eden all around us. We think this is what we deserve, that nothing can touch us within these protective walls that we have built. But when we are thrown out of that Eden, we break down and start asking, “why me, why am I the one suffering?”—just as Job did in the Old Testament.

If you look carefully, this is a pretty violent universe: stars exploding, galaxies crashing. Even in our relatively calmer planet, there is no end of catastrophes—natural disasters, climate change, random accidents, extreme poverty, corruption, wars, sex trafficking, ethnic cleansing, violence. Some of it flows from sheer randomness, such as where we are born; some from accidents. Others are definitely created by the actions of humans.

At that time, stories of the Yazidi women who escaped from the stronghold of ISIS after being captured, sold and raped many times were all over the news. They worked as an inspiration for me. I thought, if those incredibly brave women could try to live again, what was my excuse? This realization was incredibly freeing. It encouraged me to go beyond the inner screaming of “me, me, me.” The question really isn’t “why did bad things happen to me?” Shouldn’t the real question be “why not me?”

I thought about it from another angle, too. I thought about the young photojournalist. Rather than just taking pictures and leaving or watching us on the street like hundreds of other people, he asked himself: “Why not me? Why not help?” That saved my life.

Kohinur Khyum Tithila is a journalist based in Bangladesh. She is a Fulbright scholar and received her second master’s degree in Magazine, Newspaper, & Online Journalism from Syracuse University, first master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from Dhaka University, and bachelor’s degree in English from East West University. Kohinur writes about LGBTQ and women’s issues, feminism, crime, secularism, social justice and human rights. She is also addicted to anything caffeinated.

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How Do You Put Rape into Words?

My name is Julia Rayberg. I’m 25 years old, born and raised in Boston. I was drugged and raped in Guatemala, where I live and run the nonprofit organization I founded five years ago. Although not much time has passed, I am filled with this overwhelming emotion to share the story with you.

Striving for justice within a legal system that doesn’t support women, I feel so out of control. The only control I have is to use my voice, to share my words with you in hopes that it can inspire you to use yours. Although it breaks my heart knowing that so many of you will relate as you read this, I only hope it empowers you to speak up, to stand strong together in a time where our country desperately needs it. 

When we silence a woman, we empower a rapist.  Be strong with me. Be loud with me. Let’s continue to make noise and demand to be heard. 

(Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

“Julia, you are a good girl,” he would say, while he shifted around weights, dictating my workout. His voice was gentle, always relaxed as he switched between English and Spanish. The gym was small but cozy in rural Guatemala. We worked hard during our daily one-hour sessions, ragged exhales and reps punctured by bursts of laughter and talk about life.

He was that boy who didn’t party much. He worked hard. He went to bed early and woke at dawn. He ate well. He was that boy who didn’t do drugs. He had a beautiful girlfriend in the States. He knew a healthy life. His Dad left when he was little. “I don’t have a father,” he’d say. “I could never treat a woman the way men have treated my mother.”

I respected him. I started to care for him, as a friend does, but I didn’t let it show. Guatemala is my home: I moved from the U.S. years ago; I’d worked in these communities and I’d seen these situations before. Too many times. I understood his life.

“Mom worked hard for us growing up, we were so poor. She washed clothes. I take care of her now. She deserves that.” I would nod in silent agreement, but kindly avoid getting too personal. I had put a wall up. I tend to do that. I hate vulnerability.

He shared that his brothers had better jobs than him, more professional. They would say things to him like, “someday you need to get a more professional job.” He told me they were more successful than him. But the question of why or how was never answered.

“Julia, you’re a good girl,” he’d say, as we talked about the organization I founded in his country, how important service work is to me. He’d tell me about the pro-bono soccer program he ran for the poor children in the town. He’d show me photos. We bonded over that passion.

The gynecologist consoled me while she examined my cervix. I shook, convulsing on the examination bed. She didn’t see the tampon that later exited my body eight days after my rape. It must have been high up.

“You’re a good girl Julia,” he’d say, “you work hard.” It was in this way that he invited me to his best friend’s birthday party, gently reminding me every day that week. “You are coming Julia, yes?”

Yes. I brought my own wine. “They’ll have drinks there,” he insisted. But I wasn’t interested in liquor. It was the early afternoon.

The house was fancy, modern, newly built. The music was loud and latino. It was a long walk from the entry door through the living room, where people gathered around a pool table. I flashed an uncomfortable smile a few steps down into the kitchen area. This was an introvert’s worst nightmare. The view was incredible. The balcony off the kitchen brought you into a wonderland. The most beautiful lake in the world—volcanoes, pure serenity. That’s where you could find me, staring off into the lake, for the time I remember anyway.

The other guests smothered my suspicions under a shroud of hospitality and welcoming. I tried to loosen up. Just relax Julia. Just enjoy. All I could focus on was the 12-year-old boy they hired to prepare food. I knew him. I poured my glass of wine and wished my new acquaintance a “happy birthday.” We cheered the birthday boy with a sample of the bottle of Bombay Sapphire he was gifted.

An hour passed and I topped off my glass of wine. I’d leave after this glass, I told myself. I was finished entertaining the unrelatable crowd.

Time froze. Or I guess maybe it didn’t, but it did for me. They were doctors, so maybe it was anesthesia. I guess I’ll never know. A shack by the river is where I woke up. The bed was soaked with my urine. I was completely naked. He was next to me. I felt like my heart wasn’t ever going to calm itself. I was so cold.

I lost control. Questions came pouring out before I knew what I was asking. Where am I? What happened? What time is it? Where’s my purse? I had nothing. I was taken without my belongings. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to.

But I still blamed myself.

When I was in college, I knew the life of drinking into a blackout. I was too experienced with that, actually; I gave up alcohol for three and a half years. From the age of 21 to 24 I committed myself to soul searching—hard work, mindfulness, self-love. Then I decided I was ready—gave myself permission to enjoy wine, be twenty-something, embrace life. A healthy, balanced life. A life I continue to live as I serve the impoverished communities of rural Guatemala.

“Oh dear, what have you done Julia?” I thought to myself. “How in the world did this happen?” It was so dark. His skin was so soft but felt disgusting against mine. My body rejected his as if it knew something I didn’t. I shook lightly but uncontrollably. My hands were unsteady. I felt sick. I was starving.

He gave me clothes to put on as he consoled me. “Nothing happened. You just drank too much, Julia. Don’t worry.” But his voice shook slightly. My reaction had filled him with panic.

Ten hours of the unknown. A dark ceiling and a blank stare. A pain so deep with a burning desire for answers. A lying boy and a bed of urine. Numbness took over. Suddenly I remembered the tampon. It was a “just in case” tampon I had put in before the party.

I told him in a panic: “I had a tampon!” He brushed me off. “You said some shit about taking it out.” He spoke to me in soothing tones. “Everything is okay.” “I saved you from the party.” “Nothing happened, Julia. You are safe. We did not have sex.”

Ten hours of the unknown. I wanted so badly to leave but the bedroom felt safer than the unpredictable outside, a Narco slum by the river. The ugliest family. So ugly.

He tried to push his body on mine. “Quieres? Quieres, Julia?” he repeatedly asked me, “you want?” in Spanish. I can still hear his tone. I numbed my body and mind. I replied, in a quiet monotone: “no.” Staring off at the ceiling, I laid awake, so alert, searching for answers, for hours while he slept. Dawn couldn’t come fast enough.

The STD was evident. The three different antibiotics burn my belly. “Take every 8 hours for 7 days.” The “variety pack,” I call it. The “I have no idea what you could have, but please take all of the above” pack. The nightly vaginal injections bring tears to my eyes every time.

Ten hours of the unknown. But I am strong. I went to the police and they told me to leave my house. But I am strong. I started making noise and they started watching me. But I am strong. I showed the police the dirty shack by the river and they pointed out his web of criminal family members. But I am strong. I thought I knew my friend but he only knew his premeditated rape. But I am strong. I learned that they’re drug dealers in Guatemala, but I’m not afraid. I am strong.

I went through the forensic exam required by Guatemalan law — the reason women don’t report rape in this country. “Stand here. Open your legs. Squat. Get on all fours. Face down.” The drape over the exam table was dirty and stained from prior exams. I asked the male doctor if it had been cleaned, but I don’t think he liked that question. I was a mess. The room was cold. He performed a full body exam.

I sobbed as he took photos and entered my body. Raped again. But I am strong. I thought for days about how to call and tell my family thousands of miles away. How do I comfort my Mom? How do I prevent my Dad from killing him? My poor sister and brother, I know they’ll be heartbroken. Carrying the weight of their pain is worse than carrying my own. But I am strong. Four women came to me, all drugged and raped by these individuals. They never spoke up, but I’ll speak for them. We can be strong together.

While my mind is consumed by strength, my entire body aches.

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman is on repeat. I don’t know why, but it just feels good. “Keep going, Julia, this is your fight to fight,” the voice inside in my head repeats, a beautifully broken record. I reflect on Dr. Seuss. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change. It’s not.”

How do you put rape into words? I’ve asked myself this for days. And today, on the tenth day after my rape, it only feels right to recognize my ten hours of the unknown. For the sake of women who have gone through it, the ones who weren’t so lucky and lost their lives before they could speak. For the sake of the five-year-old girl who walked out of the forensic examination room before me, hysterical, tiny, her little body absolutely defeated, who was with her two older sisters. Hours and hours of unknown darkness between us. All rape survivors. My eyes connected with the eldest sister, 13 years old. We didn’t need to speak, our eyes exchanged condolences. I wanted to throw up.

How could I not do it for them? I’ll be your voice. I’ll do it for the young girl in me who experienced something once before and couldn’t speak up, only go numb, who put herself away, hid and felt shame. I need to do it for her. For the sake of justice, I will continue to fight, and I will not be afraid.

I am strong.

This post originally appeared on Medium. Republished with author permission.

Julia Rayberg is a 25-year-old entrepreneur from the South Shore of Massachusetts. At 19, she founded a nonprofit organization in Guatemala called Worthy Village, which works to build pathways out of poverty for women and children by providing economic opportunity, healthcare and education. 

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Die Jim Crow: Meet the Inmates Fighting Back Against Mass Incarceration With Music

Die Jim Crow, a full-length multimedia album set to be released in 2020, will take aim at the injustices of mass incarceration via 28 tracks composed entirely by previously and currently incarcerated musicians. Some of the voices from that album are now going multi-format as part of the Die Jim Crow EP Book out today, which features writing, photography and artwork inspired by the recordings.

B.L. Shirelle is one of those voices. In the song “Headed to the Streets,” which she wrote at the end of her incarceration at the Muncy State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, Shirelle opens up about her anxiety returning to public life after having spent nearly a decade behind bars.

Die Jim Crow co-producer Fury Young, alongside Dr. Israel, began the project after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which calls out the second-class status that faces Black men and women after incarceration. “I have had personal experiences throughout my life with people who have been incarcerated, and the book influenced me heavily,” Young told Ms. “[It] sprang up a lightbulb in my head, and I decided I wanted to take on this project that blended those two things I was interested in, that was activism and music.” 

Alexander’s observations, in large part, have shaped the collective’s mission: “After leaving prison,” reads the Die Jim Crow website, “the ‘felon’ label leaves folks stripped of basic rights, such as housing, employment, voting and education.” Young’s goal is for the album’s audience to “step inside the shoes of someone that grew up in a community infested with discriminatory policing and a high incarceration rate.”

Shirelle’s story tragically fits that narrative: the prison-industrial complex and the era of mass incarceration shaped and, in many ways, have constrained her life, and she isn’t alone. “I’ve been in the system practically since I was 12 years old,” she told Ms. “I’m 30 at this point and I’m still under supervision, so this has been a long process. I was raised in a drug-riddled home and I was pretty much born into the gang from my family. My morals were different from the common person because I was exposed to this lifestyle at a very young age.”

B.L. Shirelle. (Die Jim Crow)

Women are the fastest-growing prison population, and although the gap between incarcerated women of color and their white peers is shrinking—previously, it was six to one; currently, it is reported to be two to one—women like Shirelle face racialized and gendered obstacles to justice.

On the inside, women of color face harsher sentencing and treatment than their white peers. Shirelle saw this play out firsthand: “There’s a lot of white girls there,” Shirelle told Ms. of her time inside. “The difference is, I was there on a drug case the second time, and I did 39 months for that drug case. I had a [white] roommate who killed her child—and she had 16 months.” On the outside, inadequate community resources, neglect from city services and poor public school systems present massive obstacles to young adults seeking social mobility—and especially for girls of color, who are falling into a school-to-prison pipeline in increasing numbers.

“I grew up in the penitentiary, from 17 to 24. When I came home I wasn’t prepared for the lack of resources or for the patience it would take for me to come out of that situation,” Shirelle said. “I was very optimistic; I did all the programs and all the trade schools they [the penitentiary] had to offer. I thought I was going to come out of there, get a job and live my life. But because of my record, it was a whole different ballgame. I didn’t have the patience and didn’t know of resources to get myself out of my situation—so I wound up going back.”

The anxiety and inequity Shirelle faces on the outside is a persistent theme in Die Jim Crow: much of the material released by the collective of former and current inmates illuminates the challenges of finding employment and community after serving time. In the music video for her Die Jim Crow track, she narrates the horrible conditions she experienced under incarceration while behind bars in a prison uniform; another scene shows an American flag burning behind her.

“Tell me, what does this ‘liberty’ mean?” she asks. “Now that I’m out, can I live and be free? Can I work for a company that pays more than minimally?” Then comes a powerful declaration. “This isn’t about material,” Shirelle asserts. “It’s about looking in the mirror [and] seeming inferior.”

Eleanor Salsbury is a former editorial intern at Ms.

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