My Body — Bergen Assembly: The Parliament of Bodies, 16th of June 2019
A famous feminist slogan is, “My body, my choice.” But is it? And why do we say that? And why aren’t men saying it?
We love to pat our own backs here in Norway, and brag about how progressive we are and how far we’ve come when it comes to the issue of equality. “Norway is the most gender-equal country in the world!” Is it really? “Norway is the happiest country in the world!” — For whom?
We talk about how free we are, but I’ve never been free. My body has never been entirely mine, entirely autonomous, or entirely my choice. They say that your body is a temple, but to me — and so many other women — it’s a prison. My body limits my possibilities, my freedom; it limits what I can do, what I can say, where I move, how I move, how I dress, how I express myself; how I can act, where I can go, and how I am treated. And this affects the way that I feel, the that way I think, and even how I dream.
Throughout my life it has been made abundantly clear that we as women are anything but free.
I remember kindergarten. Boys would play games with us; where they would chase and hunt us down and then kiss us — it was, of course, never the other way around. I remember seeing a girl running away from a boy, but then he caught her, threw her on the ground, forcibly kissed her, and yelled: “WHERE ARE MORE GIRLS?!” It was a fun game for kids.
I remember “stranger danger”; being told to never accept candy from strangers, and to never ever go anywhere with them if they asked you to. Because even though we were children, our bodies were still desired by some men.
I remember being a small child in an environment that was supposed to be safe. Trusting those who I was told to trust. Those who were supposed to protect me from harm, instead of being the ones I should’ve been protected from. But I was taught a lesson. A lesson that would repeat itself throughout my life. I shouldn’t have trusted them. Oftentimes the danger isn’t a stranger. I told everyone. But I was not saved — and it changed me forever.
I remember elementary school. There was at least one predator in our neighborhood that all the kids knew and warned each other about, who always had the same description: White man, white van. “He will try to lure you in. Stay away from him.” He tried to take one of the girls at my school. He had candy. He was nice — until he wasn’t. Luckily, he was unsuccessful. But I never forgot about that, and I’m always — even to this day — on edge when I see a white van.
I remember playing outside, and an older boy in the neighborhood forcing me and some other girls into a small playhouse. I remember our backs against the wall, trying to get away from him. We were trapped. He pulled down his pants, and pulled out his penis. He wanted us to see it.
No one told on him.
I remember the day care facility for school children, and one of the boys there forcing girls into the bathroom so that he could assault them, and forcing other girls to be the lookout. I was so young, but I had already learned some valuable survival skills. I knew that being assigned as a lookout was better than being forced into the bathroom.
No one told on him either.
I remember we had a male science teacher. He was weird, and we laughed at how silly he was. One day he was gone. Because someone had informed the school about how he used to walk into the girls’ locker room unannounced. It was a place where he knew that we walked around naked after swimming class. It was supposed to be a safe place. But it wasn’t.
I remember one day when we were in the locker room, naked, starting to hit puberty, but all of us still looking like small children. One of the girls in my class bragged about how she had a new boyfriend. He was older, she said. Proudly. He was 24, but she told us that she had lied and said that she was 19, and he believed her. I remember looking at her small, naked body; no hips, no waist, no breasts, short stature, and the face of a child. She was 11 or 12 years old, and undeniably still a kid. I knew that he knew. I tried to tell her, but I couldn’t save her.
I remember summer camp. I remember sitting in a circle with other girls from the camp, and there was one male adult there, and we were sharing stories. Suddenly we were sharing secrets. I remember this one girl telling us that her mother’s new boyfriend had started to come into her room at night and give her massages. She was afraid. Because it had gotten progressively worse, and things were escalating. The male adult listened, but he did not save her.
I remember being at a mall with a friend from school. We were watching our younger sisters, and a strange old man came from nowhere and started touching and kissing me. I froze. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t scream. My friend watched in shock, horrified. No one did anything — until an older woman did. She saved me.
I remember hitting puberty, and being excited. I couldn’t wait to have the body of a woman, and not a child. I wanted my first period, I wanted pubic hair, I wanted larger breasts, I wanted hips; I wanted to be a grown-up. To be beautiful. Because that’s what women were supposed to be. Not cute. Cute meant being vulnerable. I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I wanted it all! But I did not want the attention from grown men that came with it. But it did.
I remember my young, attractive, vulnerable, single mother going from bad man to bad man. Desperate for their attention and approval — to her detriment. I remember her getting into a severely abusive relationship — so my sister and I did, too. I remember all the things he did to her, to my sister, and to me. Everyone knew. But we were not saved.
I remember junior high. I remember several of the younger girls being in abusive relationships with older boys. They were intimidated, humiliated, disrespected, controlled; and treated as objects, as belongings. Some of them were stalked, beaten, and, I’m sure, raped. But the obsession and abusive behavior was seen as love and passion — because that’s what the movies told us. That’s what the TV told us. Books told us. Society told us. Our homes told us. Bad boys are good boyfriends. That’s what we want. That’s what we desire. That’s what we deserve. Abuse disguised as affection. Everyone knew. They laughed. They gossiped. They mocked. They blamed. They shook their heads. I did, too. Because “They were weak. Pathetic. They had no self-respect. Where was their dignity?” But they were not saved.
I remember there were rumors about one of our male teachers having an intimate relationship with one of the girls at our school. She was no older than 15 years old. He was in his late twenties. It was a cool story. He was an attractive man. She was lucky. How did she get him?
I remember high school. I remember stories about the abusive older brother of one of my friends, pimping out his girlfriend and her friend to other men. He had gotten her hooked on drugs, and used to beat her. So many people knew. But she was not saved. Years later I heard that she had ran away to another country to get away from him. She was still afraid.
I remember a story about an acquaintance molesting a 12-year-old girl at a party. Everyone knew. I tried to do something about it, but to most, it was just juicy gossip. Even girls protected the guy who did it. When one of them found out, she even said: “I don’t care.” They did not save her.
I remember one of the male security guards that worked at our school being creepy and inappropriate towards me and a friend. I remember that he got fired, after the school was informed about how he was using the school’s contact information to contact and sexually harass some of the girls that went there.
I remember being warned about our local driving instructor. He was a middle-aged man, and he was sexually harassing the young girls he instructed. “Don’t wear a skirt!” my friend warned. I told my mother. But nothing was done about it. We were not saved.
I remember one of my friends getting catfished by a man that was the same age as her parents. He had pretended to be a boy her age; she was smitten and so happy! She had stars in her eyes. But when she went to meet him, it wasn’t the boy in the photos that met her, it was an old man masturbating in a room, and she was too scared to do anything. He ended up abusing her for years; and even when her mother found out, her mother did nothing. I tried so hard to get her out of that situation, and I knew that the police wouldn’t help her because she had reached the legal age of consent by that time. She had been abused by her father as a child, and ended up being abused by many other men after that. One of them were a doctor studying to become a psychiatrist. I warned her multiple times, and tried so hard to save her. But in the end, I couldn’t.
I remember so many of my female friends, who were children of immigrants, growing up in severely abusive households; where they were forced to follow extremely strict rules of conduct that their brothers didn’t have to. Their brothers could do more or less whatever they wanted, while they couldn’t do anything without their parents’ — or brother’s — approval. Many of them were watched by their community, who kept them under surveillance and notified their parents if they were caught doing anything that was deemed “unseemly” for a woman to do. Every aspect of their lives were controlled; and if they dared defy their family, death threats were not uncommon. And they were not empty threats. Fadime Sahindal’s fate was a clear warning to them all. She was killed by her father in Sweden in an honor killing. Her crime? Dating a Swedish man. Everyone knew. I tried to help those who asked me. But they were not saved.
I remember getting older. I remember the increasing sexual harassment that followed. The unwanted attention, stares and comments, and the unconsented touches. I remember the molestations, and the assaults on my body. Girls my age were getting raped in relationships, at parties, in their homes, in the streets. The danger of getting raped was something we all were aware of. We also knew that if it happened to us, nothing would be done about it. The police wouldn’t do anything if you told them; and you were on your own to deal with it, and the inevitable ramifications and the effect it would have on your life.
I remember abusing my own body to stop the assaults. I remember it so well, because I’m still doing it. I had internalized so much of what society had taught me. Even though I knew better — intellectually, but not emotionally. I had internalized the false notion that I was the one who should have prevented the assaults and harassment from happening. The onus was on me, therefore I was to blame if and when it happened. I complied. I was always a “good girl”; I didn’t party, I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs, I dressed modestly, and I wasn’t promiscuous. But clearly, that couldn’t have been good enough. I couldn’t have been GOOD enough. Because it still happened.
Again, and again, and again.
But I had done everything right. I had taken all the necessary precautions. I followed the rules! How could this still happen? Society told me that something about me had to be the cause — not the people who did it. The cause was my body. I had been thin all my life, so I followed the flawed logic that I had been taught; and forced myself to get bigger and heavier, in an attempt to build a wall between myself and potential sexual predators. I wear these baggy, masculine, anonymous clothes in attempt to not attract attention. Because I don’t want your fucking attention. But it didn’t help. I was still harassed. And I was still assaulted. And someone still tried to rape me.
I remember telling my great-grandmother about some of the things that had happened to me, and she revealed to me that she too had some of the same experiences. My great-grandmother was born in 1920. I remember my mother telling me about rape attempts she had experienced as an adult, and being raped by a 19-year-old boy in the neighborhood when she was 13. My mother was born in 1963.
I was born in 1987.
I know women who’ve been raped by their fathers. I know women who’ve been molested by family members, or someone their family trusted. I know women who’ve been abused by their boyfriends, their friends, or a one-night stand. I know women who’ve been assaulted by acquaintances, and by strangers. I know women who’ve been assaulted in any kind of situation you can think of. And I know that most women carry stories of sexual violence.
We have been surrounded by sexual predators our entire lives. We have lived life as prey for generations. For centuries. The police will not help you. Society will blame and shame you. And people will try to silence you. It’s just an accepted part of our reality — but it shouldn’t be.
Maybe this is a tired old story. Maybe it bores you. Maybe it’s too much to grasp. Maybe you find this too depressing. Maybe you’ve heard it all before. But that’s the point! This isn’t a rare story. It’s a common one. And it’s not fiction; it’s the truth and the reality that women live in. And these aren’t even all of the stories that I remember. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
I’m telling you this to make a point, to make a statement. And the point here is not to shock you with a “barrage” of stories about sexual violence. The point is to wake everyone up. The point is to make it ABUNDANTLY CLEAR that the female body is not free — not even here, in Norway. My body isn’t my body if it’s others — and not me — who can do whatever they want with it. MY BODY is not free. It never has been, and it never was. But it should be. My body should be my choice. Always.
So, what can we do? We can start by sharing our stories, no matter how painful and scary it can be. And talk to the women and young girls around you. Ask them. Ask them about their story. Listen to them. Trust them. And when they tell you their stories, believe them.
Because we all could’ve been saved.
A translated to Norwegian and abbreviated version of this piece/performance was published in the feminist journal Fett, issue 3/2019