The first part of Half the Sky, the documentary based on Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl DuWunn’s book about global female oppression, was on last night. I didn’t get to watch all of it, but the question I came away with from what I did see was:
What makes these women so resilient?
I was struck by the similarities between the female activists Amie Kandeh and Somaly Mam, both survivors of horrific gender-based violence.
Both of these women are take-your-breath-away beautiful: their fortitude heightens their physical beauty.
Neither of them bears any sign of the domestic violence and sexual abuse that could have killed them. They don’t have the dead-inside look of the abused girls I work with; they don’t appear agitated the way PTSD sufferers do; they are able to laugh and smile.
They are fiercely empowered, their voices strong and sure. They appear to lack self-doubt. And despite enduring and witnessing unspeakable atrocities, they exude a singular, unbridled zest for life and change.
So what made them not just survive, but thrive — without access to therapy or support groups or money? What qualities or unique DNA structure do they possess that the rest of us lack?
Domestic Violence from Afar
One day, in the middle of my custody battle, when I was relaying the latest crap thrown at me by my children’s father, a friend commented that my experience was like “domestic violence from afar.”
And it was. Being a woman of limited means up against a rich white male felt like getting beaten up. And the fact that my ex’s assaults didn’t create physical bruises, and that if you met him during that time you would probably have thought he was a fun, funny guy, and if you had met me you would have though, wow, she seems pretty frazzled and she has really bad undereye circles, was infuriating and crazy-making.
And lonely. Because I didn’t know anyone who was going through the same thing.
It was also painful. Supremely painful. Because I was watching my family yanked apart, my son being pummeled into hating me, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
Writing My Way Through Obstacles
When I got divorced nine years ago, my yoga teacher gave me a figurine of Ganesha, the Hindu god who removes obstacles. She told me to rub him. I was desperate, so I did. I stuck him on my vanity and rubbed him every morning, and for a few years I felt like I was at least treading water.
And then the custody battle hit. And I started to feel like I was drowning. I stopped rubbing him. The whole idea of prayers being answered seemed ludicrous, and besides, he was just a cheap brass object.
But I kept him on my vanity because he’s pretty. And I figured, maybe he doesn’t help, but he certainly doen’t hurt.
And every morning when I put on my make-up I gave him a show-me-the-money look.
Did my cynical, half-hearted prayer gestures to Ganesha remove any obstacles? Prince is still dastardly, but Luca has gotten help. And my relationship with him, which I thought was irrevocably broken, is healing.
But was I any stronger?
The other day, when I glanced at Ganesha mid-mascara application, thinking how silly it was to believe a figurine could do anything for me, I noticed the card I placed behind him, the card that explains what he does.
When I picked it up and read it, I had one of those how-did-I-not-know-this? moments. How did I not know something that had been right in front of me for years?
For years, post-divorce, I stopped writing. I couldn’t write. I felt small and empty and ineffectual, with nothing to say.
And then came the custody battle, and with it, the urge to write.
I believe, without any vestige of hyperbole, that blogging saved my life.
It cleared my head. It energized me. The ritual of sitting in front of my laptop and turning thoughts into sentences into stories gave meaning to my life and to all the crazy things I couldn’t stop from happening.
So imagine my surprise when I read the last sentence in the card above: “He is…invoked as Patron of Letters during writing sessions.”
Maybe Ganesha was listening after all.
Being Seen and Heard
One of the most rewarding aspects of blogging is knowing something I’ve written has meaning to someone else. I appreciate every comment from readers who like what I write, every e-mail from women who have shared my experience.
Knowing that my voice has been heard — and that other people gain something from hearing it — has given me the ability to bounce back, psychologically.
And I think it’s this same experience of being seen, and valued, that the Half of the Sky activists bring to the women they serve. Women who have never been more than disposable things become individuals of inherent value. And these same young women are able to go out and educate others — even the men who exploit them.
In the documentary, a rescued sex slave, whose eye was gouged out by a brothel owner, shows Cambodian men how to use a condom and lectures them on safe sex. She does this without a hint of shame or weakness. If there was ever a triumph-of-the-human-spirit transformation, this is it.
The work of the change agents led to the book which led to the documentary which leads to us, the audience. EVERYONE should watch Half the Sky. And consider being part of the solution to gender-based violence by donating to individuals featured in the documentary.
Because everyone deserves to be seen and heard.