Four women, from Pakistan, the US, Britain and Germany, sit quietly on a panel at a festival as the audience assembles and the hubbub of voices dies away. Silence falls.
Then they speak. The Pakistani woman was 8 years old, possibly younger she says, when her 15 year old cousin began to sexually abuse her. The British woman has never spoken in public before. Her written testimony is simultaneously matter of fact, poetic and searingly affecting. She is shaking as she reads: ‘From the age of 14, I was raped and sexually assaulted 7 times over an 11 year period by 12 different men in 4 countries.’ The American woman says: ‘I was raped 8 years ago when I was 29. It was the classic stranger rape that makes the headlines, and it did.’ The German woman reads a poem then says: ‘It was an older cousin. I was 5 when it started. Actually I don’t know when it started. I can’t remember when the grooming phase ended.’
For two hours the women give their testimony and talk with others in the audience who have had similar experiences. They have been brought together by Jude Kelly, the artistic director of London’s South Bank Centre, as part of the annual Women of the World Festival (WOW). Kelly is chairing. She has created a space to talk, but not the usual space. This is not a therapy room, where a progression from taboo, secrecy, pain, guilt, and shame towards healing might be hoped for. This is a public, cultural space where the women’s stories and their manner of telling them expand their particular narratives into the universal and political.
What is rape culture?. Photo: Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre.Some rights reserved
‘Society has created a story about the availability of sex,’ says Kelly. ‘But from what seems like random encounters for individuals we can start to build a story about women’s experience. We should be able to share our most traumatic experiences not as a matter of shame or blame. It’s only possible to remove that stigma by saying: “This is part of my life as terrible as that may be”. It is how to help other girls and women. This is the fourth time we have run these sessions. People have said “The sessions changed the possibilities of life for me”.’
‘It took me a long time to say that he had raped me. There was no escape. It never felt like an option to tell anyone. It became normal for me. I was 16 when these memories came back. It was hard to differentiate what was real. I was having flashbacks and nightmares and I couldn’t sleep. I needed help. I tried to tell my parents. I didn’t want to hurt them. I only told them a little. My mum is a doctor. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe me. Her reaction was “Get over it. It happens to all of us.” And that person, my cousin, was still in my life. The duty to hold the family together was a priority. What happened after is worse. It was all about him, what people would say. The last time I went to Karachi I refused to stay at my uncle’s house. My mum said I had to – in the exact same room where everything had happened to me.
‘There is a constant message: “Don’t say”. But talking about it publicly is taking the power back. My parents want me to get married. I had a panicked phone call from mum: “Don’t say anything about this”. But as long as I keep hiding that I can’t be myself. It’s a cultural thing. When we are silent we are complicit. We’ve got to challenge the culture.’
‘I had gone to Belfast for a few days for work and went hiking alone. I was approached by a strange 15 year old boy wanting directions. He kept following me. I said: “What do you want?” and he just became physically violent. I struggled for a bit and thought I was going to die. I realised he was going to rape me. Afterwards I called a friend and she got the police. I had 8 hours of forensic examinations. There were 39 physical injuries on my body. It hit the headlines that night. My life before has never been regained. It was hell in the 11 months leading up to the trial. He didn’t plead guilty until the day I flew to Belfast for the trial. He robbed me of my chance to give evidence. I wanted that showdown, to pit my truth against whatever lies he was going to tell. I felt I was an empty shell for many years after. The real me went into hiding. I had serious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and agoraphobia. All the things I had been able to do, travelling, being outdoors, I wasn’t able to do. I remember breaking down, thinking I am never going to be able to enjoy the world as I did before. But I set up the Clear Lines Festival. I feel I am me now.’
‘Because of what happened, from when I was 14, I didn’t have a normal, natural way to feel about my body. My sexual development was interrupted at a crucial time. I didn’t have a road map. I felt that my rapes were just sex that had gone wrong, that rape is what happens in war zones. After coming to WOW two years ago and hearing a police officer talk about consent, I collapsed. I didn’t realise I hadn’t properly dealt with what had happened to me. After years of depression I thought maybe what I’d thought were isolated incidents weren’t. The men who assaulted me didn’t have knives, I used knives on myself. They didn’t use gags, I tied myself up. I wasn’t in a war zone but I declared war on myself. I had PTSD for years, I was hyper-vigilant and dissociated, I had a kind of brain fog. I had to unlearn my script. I worked in the woods with other women, it’s the work of our ancestors. I feel no shame or self blame now. I feel embarrassed, but taking it out of the private into the public is a huge relief.’
‘I don’t remember when the games became abuse. When I stopped being curious and started being afraid. I had high morals as a child, especially about things like lying, but I lied all the time. He said it was a secret between us and my parents would be disappointed with me if they knew. My family was Catholic. When the time for my first communion came, I had to think of something to confess. I didn’t think consciously about what was happening with my cousin. I came up with punching another girl in the playground. I told my parents and he was convicted and given community service. Then it went into silence, no-one in my family ever talked about it again. We spent time with his family, in the same space, with the same smells, the same food. I only started speaking about it when I moved to London. It’s no coincidence that it was a new country, a new language. It was a chance to reclaim that story.’
Jude Kelly says: ‘This is the power of telling your stories, it’s helping people who have their own stories to tell.’
The testimonies continue including that disclosure brings its own traumas. It is common for survivors to experience ‘post-disclosure limbo’. ‘It’s an intense feeling of having done something wrong every time you tell someone about it,’ says one woman. Being believed, especially by parents, is crucial but doesn’t always follow. A big issue is who is held in esteem in and around families. ‘Parents are so wrapped up in their own guilt, you need to find support from people who are not part of the drama.’ ‘My father, who I thought was a protective figure, said: “It happens.” To find out he was indifferent was completely shattering. But it’s not about who my dad is. It is the culture around him. I’m not excusing it. It was the hardest thing. I don’t have a family any more. You start to make your own family.’
One woman in the audience speaks of being abused by her grandfather. ‘When it happened, it was the biggest family drama for 48 hours, then silence for the next 20 years. I’ve gained courage and strength from tiny acts of telling and the process is changing me as a person.’
So how can individual experience and the often transformational process of telling of it lead to cultural and political change? Says Julia: ‘When I first read about rape and sexual abuse, I thought: “It’s an actual thing. It’s not just my weird thing.”’
‘You need to prepare yourself for disclosure,’ says someone, but survivors can only tell when they are ready and that can take years. Two other critical elements emerge that more directly challenge our culture and public policy: how, from a young age, the self esteem of girls and an understanding of body autonomy can be developed; and the inadequacy of sex education, in the home or elsewhere, in particular the matter of consent, the practicalities of it and not just in the abstract. Says Julia: ‘We need to talk to boys from the age of 8 or 9 about consent.’
This space in London’s leading arts centre for ‘tiny’ and large acts of telling, the pitting of the truths of survivors against rape culture, is helping build a broader social movement of challenge and change.