V-Day is a global movement to end violence against girls and women. On or around Valentine’s Day, activists around the world annually launch creative events to raise awareness, fund raise, and to energize anti-violence groups. V-Day’s most ambitious campaign came in the form of One Billion Rising, launched on its 15th year anniversary on 14 February 2014. Today, a world class performing artist from the Philippines, Monique Wilson, serves as its global coordinator.
In a recent interview, Monique Wilson provided insight as to what drove her to be an activist for women. Like most, she grew up exposed to violence, primarily through her father’s abuse toward her mother. At the outset, I said that women empowerment involves more than just spotlighting the issue, it requires a celebration of women who have moved the needle in the the right direction in our effort to eradicate violence against girls and women. This entry is stepping out of flow and sequence to give specific thanks to women like Monique Wilson, Karen Vertido and several others who have used their talent and personal tragedy to do just that — bring us closer to ending violence against women.
Exposure to and experiencing emotional and physical violence affect individuals differently. Some get utterly consumed and destroyed by it. Others triumph. Oprah Winfrey comes to mind. She was brutally raped at 9 years old, sexually abused from 10 to 14, pregnant at 14, and lost her baby after two weeks. Despite that and the poverty in which she could have drowned, she got up, moved on, conquered and beat all odds. So for that girl or woman reading this, trapped in the debilitating aftermath of abuse, I want you to think of Oprah today. We may not have control of people we encounter, people who are abusive because they were and are most likely abused, but we have ultimate control of how the rest of our story plays out after the abuse.
Today, I am thinking of my constitutional law professor. She was my professor of my very first class in law school. She was a bit of a celebrity in our school and community because of her presence, established brilliance, and nationally-acclaimed work in women’s advocacy. She was also our advisor for our yearly production of The Vagina Monologues. I remember the first time I did the show with her. Backstage, there was no professor-student divide between us. She looked at you with searching eyes, not as someone above you, but someone who was looking to uncover what drove you to that spot. I was rather preoccupied with my upcoming performance to level with her and said a lot things that underscored the difference in our wavelengths. She didn’t push. She just let me go on and her parting words to us before the curtains rose was, “Be a star.”
Last year my, my beloved professor killed herself with a shotgun. It was jarring. It stirred a lot of conflicting emotions: sorrow, anger, regret, and numbness. It was like hitting a brick wall full force. It was difficult reconciling the fact that your beacon for the fight against violence against women and children committed the epitome of violent act against herself. I dealt with those emotions by pushing them aside, and simply chose to remember her for that beautiful woman in knee-high, red boots shimmying in our law school’s corridors whose voice on women’s issues is memorialized in radio shows and law journals. When I think of her, I think of a star.
Today, I recall my last memory of her. We were performing that year’s production of The Vagina Monologues. The students perform stock dialogues and she performs the special piece, usually a new piece released by the creator, Eve Ansler. That piece was about an eight year old girl raped by military men in the war zone of Bosnia Herzegovina. The little girl was so physically damaged from the brutal rape by several men. The piece recalls of a woman cradling this child on her lap, and her lap is all of a sudden wet because the child has lost complete control below. I watched my professor cry as she recited the words of the monologue. It wasn’t a theatric cry. It was restrained. It was a cry that flows from digging so deep I think she forgot we were in front of her watching. It was the kind of understanding of a situation that I have been spared to truly understand.
When we think of Oprah Winfrey, we don’t see a victim. We see an amazing woman who wields power of unbelievable proportions. She not only beat the odds against women in the media industry, the show industry. She also conquered the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of being black in a country with a very dark history and present of racism. She didn’t use her history of abuse and disadvantage as an excuse but she rose above them and defined her future. She isn’t angry when pushed to recall her misfortunes and the injustices against her. She humbly and genuinely says, “Everybody has a story and your story is as equally as valuable and important as my story. My story just helped define and shape me as does everybody’s story.”
How could her story of child abuse define her as Oprah Winfrey now? She said that her abuse taught her compassion. In my view, compassion goes beyond a warm understanding of a victim telling her story. It goes to those who are spreading the abuse as a defense mechanism for the abuse they are unable, for some reason, to talk about. On this day, instead of lashing out in anger toward people you perceive as abusive, see the victim struggling to survive in them, too. In so doing, it might help you in defining your story as one that conquers hurdles instead of one that languishes in an endless cycle of pain.
On this day, as you take your power to define your future, and you struggle to make sense of your abuse, remember to always aim to be a star, a beacon to someone despite your internal darkness.