Radical Romance: Examining Our Disruptive Affection for AOC

The right loves to hate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Gerard Baker compared her lack of experience to Donald Trump’s. Bret Stephens linked her to the catastrophe in Venezuela in the New York Times. But their ire has no effect on me and millions of other people—because Ocasio-Cortez has cast a spell on us. 

In fact, as someone who writes about romance as an ideology, I am rather surprised by just how much people across the country fallen for the woman known casually as “AOC.” Of course, we’ve fallen in love with young and beautiful politicians before. (JFK and Obama come to mind.) It’s just that AOC is outside the romantic narrative that so structures American life, both personal and political.

For one, she’s a woman. Our romantic fantasies about politicians tend to be similar to Disney fairytales: a handsome prince comes in and saves us from our woes and we ride off into our own happily ever after. That was the hope we had with Obama and the Camelot of JFK’s Whitehouse. Even on the right, the romance of politics is always male, although more a daddy figure than a prince—think Daddy Reagan or Papa Trump.

But Ocasio-Cortez also doesn’t offer us a fairytale ending the way romance does. Romance promises that we will see our prince/ss across the room, fireworks will go off and we will ride off safe and secure into our own private happily ever after.

That is the promise of romance: that love is all we need to be happy. It is also the trap of romance, since our own individual love stories, as encompassing and powerful as they feel, don’t take away from our need for shelter, food, clothing, health care and drinkable water. It’s surprising, then, that AOC is able to disrupt romance—because killing romance is a bit like killing capitalism.

Romance is a kind of ideology that developed alongside capitalism. Intense and erotic love existed before then, of course, but it didn’t promise us a happily ever after, or a safe and secure future through marriage. Pre-modern ideas about romance usually ended badly, like Romeo and Juliet; or involved a threesome between the Lady, her Knight and his Lord. But sometime in the nineteenth century, probably about the same time that Esther Howland started the first Valentine’s Day card factory, romantic love got tied up with fairytale endings that promised heaven on earth—once we found “the one” and bought them all the right stuff.

Fast-forward a few centuries. For the past couple of decades, even as marriage rates have gone down, Americans have embraced the promise of a happy and secure future through marriage with a vengeance. We privatized our futures. And why not? Everything else, from health insurance to education, was being privatized. Collective solutions to a better future, like Communism, had shown themselves to be not knights in shining armor, but drunken louts who left us in rags and without one of our shoes at midnight.

We started to spend more and more on white weddings, with the average cost now  more than $33,000, and more than twice this much in big cities. We even started to spend more and more on our wedding proposals, making them spectacular with marching bands and flash mobs and professionally edited YouTube videos with millions of likes. We read more romances than any other genre of fiction. Even gays and lesbians got in on the act, spending most of our political and economic resources on securing marriage rights rather than, say, universal healthcare for all families.

Yet when Ocasio-Cortez proposed a 70 percent tax on the super-rich, the vast majority of Americans also agreed with her. And most Americans think she’s right that we need “Medicare for All.”  

“Capitalism has not always existed in the world,” AOC said, “and will not always exist in the world.” If we can imagine that world, maybe we can also imagine one without romance—an ideology that blinds us with fairy dust to what we really need to build a safe and secure future for everyone.

Love is blind. Love is all you need. Love will find a way. Love trumps hate. In the muck of 2019, the propaganda slogans of the romance-ideological complex sound as empty as the Leninisms that littered Soviet streets. Slogans that signal a far more communal sense of the future, though, suddenly ring less hollow and sound more urgent—among them Green New Deal, Universal Healthcare and Livable Wage.

I felt a heart-warming spark of hope as I stamped my frozen feet this January in New York City, awaiting my beloved Ocasio Cortez at the 2019 Women’s March. Maybe we have finally wiped the fairy dust out of our eyes. Maybe we have started building a future that is not about our own individual love stories, but our love for humanity and our love for the Earth.

Laurie Essig is the author of Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, The Big White Weddings and Chasing The Happily Neverafter and Professor of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies at Middlebury College.

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Are We Making Headlines or Headway?

Try this: Think of your deepest, darkest secret. The one you can’t imagine telling anyone. We all have at least one. Imagine that if you tell this secret, something terrible is going to happen. People you love deeply, upon hearing your secret, will leave you. That is why we survivors fear telling our stories.

There’s a long list of other reasons. They’re all steeped in fear, too. My fear can fill a barn. I’ve been here before so I know what it is: my tongue prefers to push its tip up into my palate like it’s the first line of defense against my voice, and my tear ducts are working overtime constricting every few minutes to hold back the flood; my cheek muscles are swimming in salt water, and my lower lip is pushing back a tremor with all its might; my breath won’t go an inch deeper than the top of my lungs.

I know my fear by heart with my eyes closed. That’s what processing childhood sexual abuse can do sometimes—make you crazy-angry and crazy-scared.

(Charles Edward Miller / Creative Commons)

Beginning when I was eight and until I was 12, my father said, after every rape: “You tell anyone and I’ll kill you.” His menacing words held sway until I healed enough to realize, at moments like this, that I am not going to be killed for writing this article.

That people may actually read this article feels life-threatening to me, or so says my residual fear resulting from my sexual abuse experience. But deep down, under my anxieties, I know truth-telling is healing—even when the people you tell the truth to don’t want to hear it.

The healing I have gravitated to, chased after, beaten doors down for, took a very long time. Decades. What that did was build a spine for my voice to stand on. It constructed a foundation for the courage to speak to my family, all the while not knowing what their reaction might be, and ultimately lose most of them. They took whatever was left of their love for me and headed for the hills, and I withstood the blast of their departure from my life.

I am not the only one. Activism and creativity have been paths to healing for many of us, just as putting these words onto this page is for me. Individual survivors have long sought all kinds of spiritual and psychic healing, even on a cellular level. We get doses of medicine from our relationships—friends, partners, therapists, healers. Many survivors have healed enough to begin working on changing our lives for the better.

Now our culture needs to heal, too—so that it is no longer a place where there is so little sexual safety. How about adding that to the pledge of allegiance? With liberty, justice and sexual safety for all.

Our society now has enough evidence to understand that sexual violation is an epidemic, and incest is the grand underbelly of our rape culture. Letting it go on means we retain the breeding ground for other forms of exploitation and violation. If our culture refused to tolerate childhood sexual abuse, it wouldn’t tolerate any of sexual violence or harassment.

That isn’t to say that there has been a powerful, renewed upturn in social consciousness raising. There has. It started with the Women’s Marches in 2017, followed by the explosion of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Then came the Olympian gymnasts marching in time to the music of their victim statements broadcast out of a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan—damning not just one athletic doctor but the institutions that protected him for 20 years.

As all that emerged, this second-wave feminist heart of mine sat for months, too stunned to even know what to say—except for the occasional whisper about my fear of backlash, about my fear of those things that people say and do to refute, discredit and attack any of us who are telling our stories and fighting for justice.

I feel like my writing, my speaking, my telling is buried under a trash heap of facts. It’s a big heap. Priests and parents are raping children. Sergeants are raping corporals. CEOs are raping secretaries. Professors to students, therapists and clients, politicians and interns—it goes on and on. 

What we’re seeing now is an avalanche of truth-telling—an iceberg moving through our world, its eyes glaring out at all of us, wondering if it will be now that we, as a planet full of people, will begin to notice it, to consistently remember it and to finally do something about it.

That’s why, even in the midst of this moment, I keep asking myself: Are we making headway, or will these headlines just die down again? After the speaking up and shaming and after some perpetrators get taken down, there will still be an incredible amount of work to do. Institutions that have not held perpetrators and their protectors accountable will have to change the way they do business, and we will all have to redesign our environments in order to keep everyone safe.

If sexual violation is the iceberg, with sexual harassment being the tip made much more visible by the #MeToo, incest is its wide and harsh foundation, hidden in the depths of the ocean of our culture. As always, it’s only the tip we’re seeing. At the top of that frozen mountain are all the women voicing how they’ve been harmed, as well as some men. From movie stars to our next-door neighbors, there’s a tornado of women shouting. A slice of them tweeted #MeToo.

Great—no, fantastic. The more daylight shining on sexual violation, the more it can be eradicated. But what’s beneath the surface that can’t or won’t be seen?

Put on a wet suit and air tank, dive under the cold waters of social obscurity and find the under layers, and there reside those who can’t or aren’t ready to speak. Swim a fathom or two further down to all the battered, sex trafficked bodies. 

Now come back up to the surface—you’re almost out of air. Take a rest, warm up a bit and then put on another tank—a bigger one this time—and grab a buddy. Don’t go down alone. Swim past all you’ve seen so far, down to the place where all these other layers have grown out of.

It’s there you’ll find the incest and sexual abuse that’s been happening to children for ages, and is happening to children right now. That, my friends, is where all of this is stemming from. 

There has been a groundswell of deserved attention for the #MeToo chorus exposing workplace harassment and abuse—but hardly a whisper about the violations that happen in the home. That’s why I am adding my voice as a woman who survived incest.

Over 58,000 cases of childhood sexual abuse were reported in 2014, with 93 percent of the children knowing their abusers.  I need to add a caveat to these horrific numbers: 70 percent of victims don’t ever report. Those children, and their stories, are reason alone for us to make sure everyone gets validated for telling their story. These numbers are proof that we must have a continual avalanche of witnesses.

Until we stop the sexual abuse of children, none of these other outrages are going to end. Once the top of the iceberg gets melted down with the warmth of truth and understanding, the next layer gets exposed for what it is, huge and pervasive.

Every time I speak publicly I get asked: “What do you believe has to happen to end childhood sexual abuse?” Sometimes I want to say: “How the f#*k should I know?” But I don’t.

I say: “It’ll have to radiate from childhood sexual abuse survivors —telling the truth about our lives in ways that people will hear.” 

I know why I always need to breathe and stall before that pronouncement. It pains me to lay this burden of social change on the backs of my sister and brother survivors, as if they didn’t already have enough to deal with. But I know that rarely, if ever, does someone give up power and privilege. Almost all strides in eradicating sexism have come from women—same with civil rights and LGBTQ rights. Most hard-won bits of progress have been achieved by those on the short end of their respective stick. 

Survivors are more than witnesses. Our bodies are crime scenes. And something’s going to happen after we tell the truth. It depends on whom we tell, of course—like a support group versus family, a priest or a lawyer. But every single person we tell is going to have a reaction, and many of those reactions, sadly, will stink. (I can’t leave out the devastating fact that if you are not only a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but also dealing with racism, physical disability, transphobia or poverty, the scales of justice are stacked against you even more.)

Non-survivors have a job to do, too: believe those who tell you they survived childhood sexual abuse. 

I can feel a small flame in my gut stretching itself a bit, considering the possibilities of what a multitude of survivors and believers might come up with together for ending this soul-crushing epidemic. 

Anyone else interested in finding out?  

Donna Jenson founded Time To Tell and wrote and performs the one-woman play, “What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy,” which is based on her own experience of surviving incest and what she did to make her life worth living. Her book, Healing My Life from Incest to Joy, isa narrative of the choices she made and experiences she had that helped her heal from her childhood trauma. 

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EGG: A Provocation

In my early thirties, when I was dealing with my own ambivalence about whether or not to become a mother, I could find almost nothing—in fiction, drama or film—that addressed all I wanted to explore about the topic. I could not find a single heroine who dealt with choosing childlessness, who lived through that decision for me so I could follow her lead, even though I’d had heroines for every other issue, including not being married.

Characters that remained childless and unmarried were always tragic figures. So were female writers who took that route. Never mind that there are suicidal writers who never wrote The Bell Jar. Never mind that there are miserable men and women who have families. Never mind the children who grew up in unhappy homes. Never mind that most of my favorite fiction has always depicted the misery of domestic life.

I wasn’t sure I didn’t want children or marriage. I was terrified of both prospects, but I wanted to explore that path for myself. 

So I began to write EGG.

This was in the early 1990s, a time of raging baby fever. Images of celebrities with their “baby bumps” were everywhere. The only issues around motherhood that people were discussing were challenges with conceiving. Single parenting and sperm donation were all the rage. (Surrogacy, at that time, was becoming an option, but not as a proposed means for positive social change.) Even the editor of feminist magazine Bust was urging women to have children before their clock ran out.

I couldn’t wrap my arms around the mania to have children by any means necessary. I wasn’t worried about fertility, and had no qualms about adopting or fostering. Because I loved children and felt a powerful, biological desire to start a family, I also didn’t relate to the child-free communities I read about. Part of me wanted to be natural and full of fertile, feminine fecundity and just get over myself. I didn’t want to be some pointy-headed person, full of anxiety and just overthinking it, as friends told me I was doing.

I couldn’t square the desire I felt with the realities of what being a mother would mean for my life, and my child’s life, in the real world. That role was so fraught for me, and I didn’t know if I had the courage to have a child and spend the rest of my life and my child’s life redefining it—which is how I would have had to do it. I didn’t know if I could distance myself from the expectations that I had of myself or of motherhood, like many of my admirable friends had done.

I was ready to be a father. I just wasn’t ready to be a mother. 

The honest conversations I had with friends about all of this—male and female, straight and queer—were loaded, infuriating, disturbing, impassioned and poignant. They also made me realize that ambivalence about having children was not just a women’s issue. I saw reluctant men being tricked or pressured into parenthood, a route that their partners hoped would solve itself when they dissolved in tears at the sight of their newborn child. Other men longed for children; one even told me he cared more about having children than about the woman he had them with. 

The pressure to have children, and the ambivalence about doing it, and the ways and means it actually happened for people was so under-explored. The hypocrisies and the duplicity, the elevation of having children above what I saw as true love and partnership, the gap between biological desire and the realities of being a parent in our society—were so complex, for men and for women. I decided that I needed multiple characters to embody all of the issues in it.

EGG started as a play. The main character is a conceptual artist who reconceives of motherhood as a social experiment. She is challenged by the other four characters in the play: her husband, who longs for a child; the economically challenged surrogate mother they enlist; the main character’s pregnant art school friend; and that friend’s wealthy husband, who isn’t ready for parenthood either. Together, these five characters were able to embody and dramatize all of the internal arguments and issues I had held inside of myself.

The play, finished over 15 years ago, was almost produced numerous times by multiple producers—including a developmental process and a staged reading at South Coast Repertory—but it was never fully staged. I wanted the piece to be seen by any means necessary, as long as it was made in a way that kept its integrity. I admired playwrights like Yasmina Reeza, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee for their ability to use dark comedy to expose dark truths—and to translate their plays effectively to film.

Turning EGG into a film was a way to get it made, to set it in amber, to get it seen by more people, to have the discussion enter the popular culture. Over the years, I’d written screenplays, teleplays and other plays—but EGG was always my bête noir. And it was almost made as a film, again, numerous times, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it found the producers who were able to bring it to life.

Alysia Reiner and David Alan Basche had played two of the roles in EGG during a reading cast by director Ari Kreith ten years prior—and they wanted to make films like Equity, which Reiner produced and starred in, that challenged and changed culture, and build equitable film crews to make them possible.

I trusted Reiner and Basche to make the film I wanted to make. Along with producer Michele Ganeless, they did. The trio purposefully hired all female department heads and a diverse (and 70 percent female!) crew. They landed the director, Marianna Palka—who, as a very talented writer herself, without ego did not change a word of the script, and understood and depicted every subtlety just as I’d envisioned it. They cast a group of actors of various genders who are feminists. They found a distributor to release the film without changes or distortions.

In EGG, there are no heroes and there are no villains; there are only victims and truth-tellers. Because there are no answers—it’s an unsolvable situation. The premise of EGG is a flawed and outrageous solution to the notion of modern motherhood, and a response to a society and a culture that fetishizes motherhood but offers no equitable route toward building the happy families we think we want. 

Writer and director Dan Minahan, a friend and mentor, described the tone of EGG as “Valerie Solanis meets Elaine May.” It’s cynical, it’s romantic, it’s funny, it’s angry, it’s painful. That tone was the only way I could write about this issue honestly.

People now often ask me if making the film EGG was like having a baby. Was making Apocalypse Now like having a baby? Maybe it was. For me, making EGG was like not having a baby—and writing a film about it.

EGG is in theaters now.

Risa Mickenberg is a writer. Her plays have been performed or commissioned at Edinburgh Fringe, SoHo Theater London, the Brighton Festival and South Coast Repertory. Her fiction and humor pieces have appeared in Vice, GrlSquash, The Baffler, Purple, The American Bystander, The Witness and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Risa has also developed television projects for HBO and received screenwriting fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. (Photo by Billy Erb.)

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The Inherent Sexism of Inanimate Objects

Ten years ago, I wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times about my experiences as a stroke survivor and “stroke prosperer.”(If that’s not a word, I hereby invent it now.) The article detailed my experiences from the initial headache through botched diagnoses, renewed marriage vows, divorce, recovery and rediscovery of who I am.

Yes, I came out stronger. Yes, I learned who my true friends are. Yes, I learned how family can bond together in ways unfathomable to me until that moment. I also came to learn that my recovery would be, and still is, made more difficult by the inherent sexism of inanimate objects—specifically, in wheelchair design.

(Max Pixel / Creative Commons)

I had faced down many of the disadvantages that come with being a woman, and I had been more than willing to fight to rise about above them. But having to fight against an inanimate object was not something that had occurred to me. We cannot avoid the myriad of empirical proofs that the patriarchy continues to do its best to limit, or at least minimize, women. The #MeToo movement and the sexist part-time occupant of the White House make it clear that women are still considered second class citizens, and that our opinions and safety don’t really matter to the culture at-large.

When those inequities intersected with the way that others perceive people in wheelchairs, I found that my status in society was lower than I had ever imagined.

Wheelchairs have been around for centuries—and, according to some scholars, for millennia. Early iterations were designed mainly to transport the wealthy, but things shifted in Germany in the 18th century, when “invalid chairs” were developed. They were still geared toward the moneyed elite, and they were also very much designed solely for men—both as injured soldiers returning from the battlefield and as a way to transport “important persons” of the time in style and comfort. (Meaning men, if one requires a translation…)

These early wheelchairs were similar in design to armchairs, and they were dependent on a person pushing the patient. Wire spoke wheels and rubber tires made things lighter and easier, but it wasn’t until the cross-frame folding wheelchair design of the 20th century—crafted by the disabled mining engineer Herbert A. Everest—that independence for wheelchair users was actualized. Unfortunately, Everest’s frame was still built for men, designed according to his own needs, and while numerous alterations, developments and improvements were made throughout the next hundred years, they focused on lessening the weight, making them sturdier and forging them to become increasingly reliable—but not necessarily female-friendly.

This might explain why my experience has been frustrating beyond measure. As a stroke victim with limited usage of my upper body, I find myself slipping in a standard design wheelchair. (Battling with Medicaid to get the proper wheelchair would also constitute another article, and perhaps a book.) I have yet to find a design that takes into account my body shape, and I know, from friends in my disabilities group, that I am far from alone. Yet as I began researching the subject, it quickly became clear that there is widespread denial about the issue in the medical community, despite an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence from female wheelchair users. I was unable to unearth more than a few limited studies on the ergonomics of wheelchairs, most of which found that manual wheelchairs were less than ideal and often kept in “deplorable mechanical conditions.”

Conversely, the degree of complaints from women in wheelchairs, whether adult or childhood users, prove that the basic design is geared toward the male user—including the seat angle, lack of ability to adjust said angle, back design and even the foot rests that don’t accommodate high heeled shoes (which, believe it or not, disabled women sometimes want to wear). There is no headrest that accommodates a variety of hairstyles. Chairs are not equipped with safety clips to keep long skirts from getting caught in the wheels. And aesthetics that address femininity purely infantilize it—think pink and lavender armrests.

“Chairs are not made for a woman’s butt and hips,” attorney, former Miss Wheelchair North Carolina and current MPA Candidate at Harvard Kennedy Business School, Ariella Barker, offered. “When I was going through puberty, I was having a hard time sitting with the correct posture because my butt was growing, and my cushion and shape of the chair didn’t account for this—so it made me sit too far forward, causing back pain. Shock systems aren’t really a top priority. But for woman, going over uneven pavement or grass, gravel… our breasts bounce, and it’s terribly embarrassing.”

To be fair, there are fully adjustable electric wheelchairs out there that solve most of the issues—for the wealthy patient. For the rest of us, the glaring sexism sticks.

Chris Fawcett, an inventor and former Steadicam operator working on creating an “elevated walking chair” called a Zeen, surmises that wheelchairs have been around so long that their flaws have been grandfathered in—used and reused in contemporary designs without undergoing the thorough testing that one would expect for a medical device. (Fawcett is determined to conduct his own tests in order to get better answers, and there is much cause for optimism in the new designs put forth by his company.)

“I feel once the lens of disability is shifted, and people see ‘us’ in more of a equal light, a lot of people will want to be involved in the wheelchair game with new designs—at least that’s what I hope for,” Tatiana Lee, an actor and blogger, shared with me. “It’s hard at this point, with only having maybe four popular wheelchair companies, and they all have their own esthetic that I can totally see as being more male-driven.”

I’m not as optimistic as Lee. As we’ve learned over the past couple of years, complacency is not an agent of change. Raising the issues and raising our voices is the only way things will evolve. These concerns must be brought to the public’s attention. Universities and research groups should study the problem. Hospitals should address these inequities in experience.

The fact that over half the population continues to suffer unnecessarily because of poor design choices is unacceptable.

Ronnie Wenker-Konner is a television writer (Cagney & Lacey, Hart to Hart) who suffered a debilitating stroke more than two decades ago. After her arduous recovery, both mentally and physically, she started to write again. She recently completed a rewrite of an original screenplay entitled The Big Room, a project Diane Keaton was originally attached to direct.

Scott Sanford Tobis is a screenwriter and LA Weekly-nominated playwright—who proudly lost the award to the late Ray Bradbury. He recently collaborated with Ronnie on The Big Room. 

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These Are Not My People

Why is it so hard to believe that white women who voted for Trump are mostly as fixed in their views as you are?” Katha Pollit recently asked in a wickedly funny column for The Nation. “They voted for him for dozens of reasons: to fit in with their family and community, to preserve or gain status, to piss off the libtards, to ally with their menfolk, to keep MS-13 from killing their children, to bring back jobs stolen by Mexico and China, to keep taxes low and black children out of their schools or because it’s what Jesus wants.”

More personally and more queerly, I would add that these are the same women who are throwing me out of public bathrooms because I’m too butch. (I don’t believe for a second that they really think I’m a man. I think they are picking up on a right-wing discourse about masculine-of-center women as dangerous.) We can’t even agree that we have a common gender, probably because we don’t—nevermind come to some common belief about where our interests as white women lie.

“Calling [these women] out as racist, xenophobic foot soldiers of the patriarchy isn’t going to make a dent,” Pollit asserted to her readers. “Just as you don’t want to be the obedient wife of some porn-addicted Christian bully, they don’t want to be a slutty baby-killer like you.”

This might explain why I am so very tired of people telling me that as a white woman, it’s my responsibility “to get my people”—and “convert” the majority of white women who vote Republican into feminist activists. 

These women don’t need me explain to them that they’re voting against—and fighting against—their best interests. Offred isn’t going to change Aunt Lydia’s mind.

Activists gathered in Minnesota on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration in protest of his anti-feminist agenda. (Fibonnaci Blue / Creative Commons)

It’s piety, not politics, which shape this call, full of the thrill of a deeply personalized anti-racism, the pretense of having said something difficult and powerful. But our misty-eyed pronouncements about how we can change the hearts and minds of Republican-voting white women gloss over the hard work and organizing that must go into an effort to stop Trump’s anti-woman agenda and the anti-feminist backlash which defines it, reducing such a behemoth undertaking into a matter of a single difficult conversation over Christmas dinner.

Such declarations fail to take seriously the rising influence of right-wing anti-feminism—and mark a major categorical mistake for the movement. The call to “get our people” confuses our exhortations to each other within feminism to assert, and rightly so, that anti-racism is white women’s work, with a project beyond the feminist movement.

It’s critical to be aware of how much racism and sexism—what others call “traditional values”—are central to anti-feminist recruitment. Indeed, anti-feminism is what brought white women into the fold of the Republican Party. 

As Marjorie Spruill has pointed out, in the 1970s, the GOP made a bid to include feminists and feminism under its umbrella, but then rejected it. Richard Nixon promised universal daycare and was stopped by conservative activists, mostly women, who called it “socializing children.” For a minute, there was bipartisan support for the Equal Rights Amendment. President Gerald Ford appointed a presidential commission to design an agenda for women’s equality, and Republicans in Congress supported funding for International Women’s Year meetings to be held in every state, to elect delegates and design resolutions for an International Women’s Year convention in Houston in 1977—and First lady Betty Ford and dozens of prominent Republican women activists even spoke from the stage.

This gambit failed, however, when members of the party, notably among them women like Phyllis Schlafly, organized against feminists. Schlafly originally made her mark by arguing that the Republican Party had become too liberal—singling out even (General) Dwight Eisenhower. She went after supporters of feminism, building a national anti-feminist women’s movement dedicated to the “traditional” family. She organized a counter-conference to Houston. She fought against the passage of the ERA, and gave us the fear-mongering argument against constitutional equality that continues to haunt queer and trans folk: that it would put men in women’s bathrooms, where they would rape and terrorize women.

Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, in coalition with a growing number of right-wing religious organizations, was just beginning to find its feet in that decade, welding together “family values” with support for racism and militarism in the process. And the modern Republican Party is exactly what they were working toward. White women are not accidentally members of this coalition—the anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-abortion, racist, “pro-family” politics around which they have formed their core identities are its core.

Today, women following in Schlafly’s mold are closer to power than ever before. Increasing numbers of them are working at cabinet-level agencies, working to promote the idea that women mostly lie about rape, that sex is binary and trans people don’t exist, that birth control doesn’t work, that sex education should be abstinence-only and that abortion is murder.

These are not “my people.” These are not “our people.” They stand against everything we are for. Instead of worrying about how to bring them into our movement, we need to get serious about the work of organizing in opposition to their agenda. 

Laura Briggs is Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico and in 2012 won the James Rawley Prize on the history of U.S. race relations for her book on how mothers of color lose their children to the state, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption. Most recently, she wrote How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump.

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My Feminist New Year’s Resolution

New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday. It’s a time of year when I reflect and set goals for the future. I believe that engaging in radical vulnerability—opening myself up to hard truths about myself—is the first step to healing, which allows me to work authentically with others across our differences and truths so that we can achieve a world where human rights are recognized, protected and celebrated.

I asked myself hard questions as 2018 came to a close: What have I done for social justice? Have I moved the needle? Or have I stayed in my proverbial “lane”? In an act of radical vulnerability, I am sharing what I realized: I have failed to fully show up for immigrant justice.

Activists called for the end the surveillance, deportation and criminalization of undocumented peoples at a Los Angeles rally for immigrant rights last year. (Molly Adams)

Human rights are global. Man-made geographic borders and concepts around citizenship only create the conditions to other our human siblings. Any institution that was created via imperialism, colonization, genocide and slavery is something we should divest from. But at the end of 2018, as I lived in my queer black femme body, I couldn’t deny my positional privilege as an American citizen.

It’s time for me to admit that I haven’t been utilizing my privilege to really show up for immigrants and those fighting for immigrant rights and justice. I have watched quietly from the sidelines and shown my support in the most “slacktivist” ways—saying I support immigrant justice on social media, but then moving on to another social justice issue that feels more comfortable to me. I know that if my activism doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, then I’m not trying hard enough; being uncomfortable means I am challenging myself in new ways. Not all of our social justice work should be uncomfortable, but if I am serious about liberation, I need to do the hard work of transformation and not merely transaction.

For too long, I’ve unknowingly—or been unwilling to admit—that I have been a social justice advocate working towards liberation in tiers: me first, you second, then everyone else. I have been so focused on black queer feminist liberation, which is necessary and urgent, that I have been missing opportunities to actually achieve collective liberation with all the people who don’t share my identities.

Identity politics matter, but they can’t be the sole vehicle of activism. After engaging in an arduous process of personal interrogation and introspection, I realized that part of my issue was misplaced jealousy.

I wish I could trace my journey to the U.S. As a black woman, my history was taken away from me when my ancestors were taken against their will and forced to come here as property. They were not seen as full human beings. It still hurts. It’s still painful. I am not over it. But through my unpacking process, I realized that I had let my personal pain create a barrier between myself and those who immigrated to the U.S.—assuming that because they may know their country of origin, they were somehow more positively connected to their heritage.

That, of course, was a logical fallacy. There is no one immigration story, and real life is stories are complex. Focusing on what I don’t have—connection to my country of origin—got in the way of recognizing that the same institutional systems—white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, state violence—oppress both ancestors of slaves and immigrants.

My focus is now clearer: It’s my responsibility to resist these structures, alongside those most affected, so that we can create new systems that allow us to live free and well.

What now? How can I overcome my guilt, shame and embarrassment and show up for folks who I will surely make mistakes in front of? I know that I have a long way to go. I have been on the other side of this situation. Because of my personal identities, I often have white folks ask me how to show up for racial justice; straight people ask me how to show up for LGBTQ liberation; masculine presenting folks ask me how to support feminist ideology and practice. My initial reaction is a big sigh, and a look to my right and left to see if there is anyone else can field the inquiry, before I offer a list of books to read and a quick list of things to just stop doing. The most important lesson that I teach is to do the hard work of unlearning stereotypes—and to do it with someone who is not from the affected community, because their job is to not relive their trauma for your education.

As a U.S. citizen, I am an ally in the immigrant justice movement. It’s on me to study the history of the movement and divest from institutions that harm the liberation of all immigrants. It’s on me to show up early and stay late. It’s on me to ensure that those directly affected have all that they need to show up and do the work. It’s on me to go back to my comfortable movement spaces and fight for the inclusion of my allied communities’ space as a bridge when I am able.

My liberation is tied up with the liberation of immigrants. I will not be free until all others are free. If I continue to deny my need to show up for immigrant justice, I will never achieve black liberation. As long as immigrants are denied access to health care, living wages, freedom from violence and human dignity, my people will too be denied access to the same things. What’s even more important is that my people are also your people and your people are my people. The separation that exists between my communities and communities of immigrants isn’t real—it was intentionally created to separate us from one another, to control us and our interactions.

I’m making a public commitment to embark on a transformational immigrant justice allyship journey this year. Our collective liberation is too important for me to not show up. I invite you to join me.

We start by asking ourselves one question: What will we do for collective liberation?

Candace Bond-Theriault is the policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Taskforce.

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Three Feminist Reasons I’ll Be Grateful This Year

I aspire to start every day with gratitude. In spite of a year of natural disturbances and disasters, deepening political divides and disappointments and worsening humanitarian crises in so many parts of the world, I strive to find at least three specific reasons to give gratitude each day. Every day on that list is gratitude for a loving life partner, a healthy and loving family and lasting friendships. This week, as 2018 ends and 2019 begins, I am adding three organizations that fill my heart with gratitude every day.

Pat Mitchell speaking at the 2018 Judicia Digital Learning Center graduation in November.

As all my friends and family know well, I find my time on the African continent to be restorative in so many ways. I am especially inspired by the good work that is visibly and measurably creating new opportunities for many communities left behind or left out of the digital economy created by new technologies. The Good Work Foundation (GWF) is addressing this challenge in rural South Africa by establishing digital learning centers and partnering with corporations to create new jobs in the region.

GWF CEO, Kate Groch, reminded the graduates to believe in themselves.

Earlier this month, I had the honor to speak to the graduates of the 2018 computer competency course at the Judicia Digital Learning Center, one of seven in the Kruger Park area where the nearby game preserves and safari camp owners are providing the funding for a complete ecosystem of learning and working that is shaping a new kind of future for individuals, families and communities.

Founded and led by Kate Groch—an energetic, dedicated teacher who realized the limitations of the government schools in reaching this population with needed skill training, the centers now offer self-guided curriculums, specifically targeting job opportunities in the region, serving more than 6,000 learners of all ages every week, transforming the future for rural South Africans.

Graduates, Pat and her grandchildren celebrating after the graduation ceremony.

At this graduation, nearly 100 young people—80 percent of them women—accepted diplomas as their parents, overwhelmed with gratitude that their children would now have opportunities for economically viable work and careers, looked on with great pride. Parents and grandparents danced, sang and celebrated—and took pictures with me and my grandchildren, who loved being a part of this special day. Gratitude to the Varty family of Londolozi, founding partners of GWF; Luke Bailes, Singita chairman; and Kate, Ryan and the entire team for this experience.

Each day I’m in South Africa or Kenya or Congo, I reflect on the privilege I’ve had to participate in the work of the V-Day movement to end violence against women and girls. 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of V-Day by Eve Ensler and, rather than diminishing in strength and impact, V-Day’s 20th year activities reflect the ever evolving power of art and activism, led locally and connected globally to a singular commitment to rising up against gender-based violence.

As a V-Day board member since the beginning, I have witnessed the changes made by V-Day supported activists working to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya, provide healing and training for the victims of the conflict in Eastern Congo and come together in 200 countries as part of V-Day’s One Billion Rising to challenge cultural practices and demand important reforms.

V-Day board members Pat Mitchell and Carole Black, with V-Day founder Eve Ensler and Agnes Pareyo, Masai activist and anti-FGM leader.

This year began with the release of My Revolution Lives In This Body, which has been shown at V-Day gatherings around the world and a special V20 edition of The Vagina Monologues available for activists anywhere to perform on V-Day (Valentine’s Day). More performances than ever took place this year, adding to the $150 million already raised by this one play to support anti-violence activists.

The CITY OF JOY documentary also had a worldwide release as a Netflix original—and our beloved friend, V-Man and co-founder of City of Joy, Dr. Denis Mukwege, received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with our Yazidi sister-activist Nadia Murad. It was a defining moment for the anti-gender-based-violence movement.

These are only just some of this year’s highlights that make me ever more grateful to Eve and the global sisterhood I give gratitude for every day.

I’m also grateful for the work of Jacqueline Novogratz and Acumen, a nonprofit working to change the way the world tackles poverty. Investing in social enterprises that offer products and services to serve the poor, the Acumen Fund leads the impact investing movement with its patient capital approach, a unique fellows program and an online moral leadership course. Acumen is disrupting the status quo by nurturing and strengthening values-based leaders and innovative and courageous entrepreneurs.

Just this past month, Acumen launched #OneGreatIdea, a new video series that tells the stories of three such entrepreneurs and their enterprises that are creating real, lasting impact. The challenges we face today, from extreme inequality to climate change, demand new solutions.

#OneGreatIdea can redefine what’s possible.

At a gathering last March of the global Acumen community of fellows and entrepreneurs, one of them stopped me on the first day and asked: “Why are you here?” I was startled by his inquiry, but answered that I was an Acumen board member and was eager for the opportunity to meet the people doing the work on the ground in Kenya, India, Pakistan and Ghana. He smiled and asked his question again.

Why are you here? I realized he wasn’t asking why I was at that convening—he wanted to know why someone whom he probably viewed as a privileged older white woman was involved in this work. I answered: “I’m here for the same reason you are. To be engaged in the work that is making the world a better place for everyone.” He smiled at my answer, hopefully believing that it came from my heart, where I have held his question throughout the weeks and months that followed.

Why am I here—or anywhere, doing anything—if the reason isn’t engaging in good work, showing up with support when possible and using every platform to raise awareness of the good work being led by extraordinary individuals and supported by deeply committed people and to express gratitude for all of that?

One of my favorite quotes is from the British writer Gilbert Chesterton: “Thanks are the highest form of thought and gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” My happiness is indeed doubled by the wonder-filled work that is creating change for individuals, communities and the small and fragile world we all share.

Originally published on Pat Mitchell’s blog. Republished with author permission.

Pat Mitchell is known for her leadership in the media industry as a CEO, producer and curator. She partners with the TED organization to co-curate and host an annual global TEDWomen conference and is the chair of theWomen’s Media Center and Sundance Institute boards, a founding board member of V-Day, a member of the board of the Acumen Fund and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The first woman president and CEO of PBS, she most recently served as president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media; she is now a senior adviser to the organization. She is also the former president of CNN Productions, where she executive produced hundreds of hours of documentaries and specials, which received 35 Emmy Awards and five Peabody Awards. She was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 2009.

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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 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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