Blog: #MeToo and the question of speaking

When the #MeToo collective action campaign gained momentum online, I was overcome with an insurmountable amount of pain — and love. But, of course, the one question staring me in the face was: Do I speak?

I have already spoken so many times. I have shared too many stories of violence and pain. It feels like I spend all my days speaking, yelling, demanding people pay attention, and I don’t know if it’s helped me.

What is the purpose of speaking? I often find myself speaking out of a place of urgency — as though to keep it all in would be to slowly but surely implode. So, do I speak to save myself? Not in the hopes of being heard by the perpetrators, but rather in desperation of letting it out, because to hold it in my body is to add weight to my body — more and more — until I can no longer move? Do I speak to somehow distance myself from my pain by attempting to name it; to let it out through words that cannot even begin to convey the depths of what my body is carrying, but that can serve as an illusion of the pain being manageable? Pain that can be turned into sound bites. Does this help me? Or does speaking erase me — erase us, erase the magnitude of this violence?

I have already spoken so many times. But this time, #MeToo was demanding it of me. Who would I be speaking to now? What would I be speaking for? On whose terms? And to what end? I was, therefore, reluctant to speak at first. I was trying to resist this demand for me to speak; to share and divulge my pain publicly. And while I knew that this was not the intention behind the outpouring of stories from my friends and communities, I couldn’t help but feel that I had to participate.

I waited a few days for this feeling to wear off before I decided to speak, in the hopes that now I was making the decision to speak on my own terms: Out of solidarity, love and anger. I still felt like I had to speak, but I think it was because I knew that I could speak and wanted to do so for the beautiful souls who had already spoken. I refused to share details about my trauma; partially because I did not want to feed into the shock factor people were looking for (though, of course, this cannot come as a shock to anyone, since we have been speaking about this violence for years). Another reason I decided not to share details so publicly was because I wanted to protect myself from the people who would inevitably ask for more details, demand more and feel entitled to my trauma, or would be waiting to try to poke holes in my stories — to tell me that my experiences do not count as violence.

While some experiences of violence are very overt, others are covert and cannot neatly fit into the very narrow definitions people often use to speak of sexual harassment and sexual violence, which left me pondering another question: What kind of stories get to be shared, heard and acknowledged under this #MeToo campaign? Who and what are we excluding or erasing when we expect, and only make space for stories that fit neatly into the narrative of the street harasser, the stranger? Or stories that don’t neatly fit into the gender binary? What are the prerequisites for experiences to be expressed in this campaign? Again: On whose terms? Violence is such a complex, layered thing. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to point to a singular moment or thing and call it violence. This violence certainly does not feel singular, it feels all-encompassing.

And so, why was there this demand to speak? Who should even have to speak, to do the emotional labor of undoing this ongoing violence? Why does this burden keep falling on us — its victims; its survivors? It is not fair. We often do it, though, because we have to. Because no one else will. We do this out of the need to survive, out of desperation. And we speak knowing that we will often not be heard by the perpetrators of this violence. We have seen time and time again that no matter how often and how loudly we speak, they are not hearing us.

But right now, I refuse to speak to these perpetrators, to turn this violence we carry into teachable moments for them. I refuse to share these stories for perpetrators to then ‘like’ them and comment with blanket and hollow apologies that make them feel absolved.

But that does not mean I will be silent. Because not speaking, at least to me, was an internalization of this violence. I was led to believe, through silence, that this violence was so normal that I do not need to create and hold space for its effects on me. And so, with all the questions and frustrations and anger that #MeToo reminded me of, it also brought with it a reminder of the power and importance of the collective, of solidarity, of space and of acknowledgement. It showed that speaking is contagious, just as silence is. Thus, to give one another space to speak is to give ourselves space to exist fully.

And so I speak. But on my own terms. And for my own people. Out of love for the bodies that keep suffering and dying, and for our own bodies which we are struggling not to hate or hide or shame. As an expression of love to myself and to the beautiful souls that support me and love me and fight every single day. We are holding space for us.

This is the second piece in a series of commissioned reflections on MeToo as a campaign. If you would like to contribute your analysis of, or response to, the campaign and its impact, please inbox us on Facebook. The first piece can be found here

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Nadine El-Nabli