When my mother was a tomboyish nine-year-old, a close family friend sexually assaulted her. The family friend asked my mom to sit on his lap. She remembers feeling uneasy but unable to refuse, as he was loved and respected as the patriarch of his family. The second she sat on his lap, he clamped his strong hands over her chest. She felt a sharp pain shoot through her body and struggled but couldn’t break loose. She lost her breath, and the shock and shame sent red flames up her face and made her hairs stand up on their ends. He finally let go when another adult walked into the room, and my mother scrambled off his lap, confused and hurt.
I felt a cold chill down my spine as my 45-year-old mother narrated her story to me as if it had happened yesterday. I felt her anger and helplessness. When she told the story to her mother, my grandmother merely shushed her and told her to forget about it. She didn’t forget about it, but she did keep quiet. At least until now. I asked my mother if she thought her insecurity about her body might have resulted from that incident. A look of surprise flitted across her face, and almost like it had just occurred to her, she nodded her head, agreeing.
Even at nine years of age, my mother knew what that man did to her was not right. Nor was it his right. He felt he could do it and get away with it. She wonders how many others he assaulted just like her. When he passed away, my mother rejoiced, thinking, “One less evil person in this world.” She said, “Everyone was mourning and eulogizing him, while I was secretly celebrating his demise.”
So many of my mother’s friends have similar stories. She recalls the day a few boys in the canteen gave her friend two balloons on Valentine’s Day with nipples drawn on them to mimic her large chest. That day, her friend could not stop crying in the bathroom. Another friend of hers was assaulted by a teacher at her boarding school. When she reported him, he faced no consequences. A third friend of my mother’s had to lock herself in the bathroom to avoid the advances of an acquaintance’s drunk father, only to be told she was silly and ruining everyone’s fun.
In all these instances, the victim was the one filled with shame — overwhelmed with the feeling that maybe they did something to encourage their attacker. Maybe it was their fault. My mom still agonizes and asks herself, “Why did I sit on his lap? Why didn’t I have the strength to refuse?” These feelings are reflected in recent news about the sexual misdemeanors of Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein. Celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o and Ashley Judd have talked about their shame and their worries that speaking out about the assault would end their careers. Shame isolated and silenced these victims — just as it did for my mother and her friends.
Last month, my mom added #MeToo to her Facebook status. Actress Alyssa Milano started the hashtag to give women a platform to talk about the sexual harassment and assault they have faced as a way to demonstrate how prevalent sexual assault really is. The movement has reached 85 countries and garnered 1.7 million tweets. Countless women have shared their experiences on other social media platforms as well.
Many of my mother’s friends asked her if she really thought a social media campaign like that would change anything. So many online campaigns and hashtags arise after terrible incidents, like #GunControl and #BlackLivesMatter. Critics of these online movements argue that they do not solve the problem, so we should not waste our time on them; instead, we should focus our efforts on more concrete solutions. In the end, a hashtag will not win the battle against gun violence or racial prejudice.
Despite this criticism, my mother says a hashtag does hold significance, and I agree with her. You cannot begin a battle with the sole objective of winning. Revolutions begin because people refuse to tolerate injustice any longer. Hashtags like #MeToo advocate to reveal and end a pervasive injustice. Social media can be an effective platform for increasing awareness and starting a conversation to make change. The #MeToo campaign gave my mother the courage and empowerment she needed to speak up about her assault. She was warmed by the support and empathy she received from her Facebook friends. For my mother, the #MeToo campaign was the beginning of the healing process. It was her way to fight back and show her support to others who have been victims of sexual assault.
This online movement will not end sexual assault. But for individuals like my mother, it is a tremendous leap forward in the protection of victims, male and female. It lets the public know that just because someone is rich, powerful, and famous does not mean they can get away with attacking people. With the knowledge of my mom’s experience with sexual assault and support garnered from the #MeToo campaign, I now have the courage to say “NO.” I now know that I can use my voice to stand up for myself and for others made to feel voiceless, because no human being deserves to be silenced.