/ 1 November 2017

A silence that begins at home



I have always thought of myself as a relatively decent person. I don’t litter. I don’t kick puppies. I believe in trying to minimise global warming and that people should be politically educated and live their best lives generally. I give hugs to strangers (if they consent) and I call my mother every Saturday. The more my life and activist career have grown, the more I have considered myself one of those who “did the right thing”, at least, most of the time.

However, #MeToo has me thinking how, even as a sex-positive feminist, I have been complicit in planting and nurturing little Harvey Weinsteins in my own backyard.

Several memories have recently resurfaced while reading about the shame, silence and mass complicity involved in the whole nightmare. Once my outrage had died down, I got to thinking about how many perpetrators I have nurtured in the dark spaces created by my own active ignorance simply because I “kept it moving”.

The nightmare has shown us what silence can do, how it can be widespread, no matter how famous and how much of a titan you are. Much of the conversation is about how this silence could prevail. How could people simply let this happen?

The sad answer is quite easily, and a lot of it is in the name of “not rocking the boat”. I was once told it is easier to change your beliefs than your behaviour. The work I have done for many years has shown me that, no matter how woke a space is, there is always the potential for complicity in violence among those who work within those spaces.

But this is not about calling out anyone so I’ll admit to having done this using my own cautionary tale and case study.

Charge number one: Circa 2009. A friend told me how a mutual friend of ours had sexually assaulted her after a night out. I was shocked, saddened that this had happened to my friend and that someone so close to us could do that. It would seem I was not moved enough to do anything about it because three months later I conveniently blocked it from memory and gathered us all for lunch. She came and so did he and apparently lunch was delightful. It has been nearly 10 years and I have said nothing.

Charge number two: Circa 2015 and drinks with some feminist friends. One opens up about how another feminist within the community sexually assaulted her. That night we discussed the silencing of it all, how she hadn’t said anything because the person was well known and people had told her not to. Approximately seven months later, I attempted to bring them both into a partnership for a project that would have them working in close physical proximity for an extended period of time. I may have encouraged her to speak up but then silenced her by considering the work of her perpetrator more important than her comfort.

Charge number three: Circa 2016. After a lengthy conversation, another friend confided in me that her partner had once beaten her so badly it had caused permanent damage to a part of her body. I knew her partner professionally and went on to work with them, ironically, on body security and agency projects. I made a half-hearted attempt to confront the issue but it was mediocre at best and pretty cowardly if I really think about it.

Charge number four: Circa now. I hear about an assault by a prominent activist and have a moment of “maybe the victim is lying” and I put myself on a perpetual time-out — the “think about what you have done” corner that I still sit in as I write this article.

My rap sheet is longer than that. I won’t list it all here but I am going through it with a fine-tooth comb. The ease of silence when our personal and political meet is what we should unpack and address when we are looking at why victims are silent. For me my passion and my politics have in some cases not helped those closest to me.

Arguably, my ability to wax indignant about rape culture has not come forth when I truly needed it, when someone else really needed it. We are never immune to being complicit in the silences that shame victims, that allow their pain and suffering to be muted and “managed”, even if we too carry the same scars.

The conversation about “how could they be silent?” is not helpful. Instead we ought also to question how we can learn to resist our part in creating this silence, especially in our everyday personal spaces. We need to be cognisant of the discrepancy between our public outrage and our private acquiescence.

Kagure Mugo is the cofounder and full-time curator of HOLAAfrica!