Saying NO! Is Not a Betrayal
Nawal Rajeh interviewed Aishah Shahidah Simmons, an award-winning African-American feminist lesbian independent documentary filmmaker and international lecturer, about her film NO! The Rape Documentary.
Tell us where the idea to make this documentary began.
The idea started in the early 90’s when Mike Tyson was accused and charged of raping an African American woman. At that point many African American leaders were enraged that she came forward and accused him. I myself am a survivor, but when I started the process of this film, I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. I wanted to help black women break the silence that exists, as it does in so many communities. We don’t want to make our community look bad. What that means is we don’t want to make men look bad? There’s a lot of pressure put on women that come forward because they are viewed as being traitors of black men. I’m looking at the making of NO! with a lot of hindsight. Making NO! saved my life. I can’t imagine my life without having made it. I’m not in it, but I am throughout it- through the stories of the other women. It most definitely saved me- it took me through hell and back. The level of my being out about as sexual assault survivor in terms of where I was then and where I am now makes me feel like I have the responsibility to be out about the complexities of sexual assault. One of the main requirements for every survivor featured in NO! was that they would have to be willing to have their face shown and full name displayed on camera. The reason behind this was that I wanted to convey the message that there should be no shame in having been raped. My goal was to inspire and ignite other survivors to come forward. My firm belief is that the shame should be on the perpetrators.
What was the reaction you received from your community throughout the duration of the making of this film?
When I first started making NO! People didn’t want to touch this. Really I was completely suspect for many people, for many reasons. One of things I say is that we (survivors) we are not responsible for racism, for Islamophobia, homophobia, and so forth. You can’t lay that on me. If you are concerned about racism, then say, “Let’s not rape this sister here then.” It is hard. I have screened NO! to people in Middle-America. I always wonder nervously as the film plays, “what are they thinking about my community? Yet, what I’ve found more often than not is that women, regardless of their race/ethnicity, and more specifically survivors, relate to the story.
The first one third of the film lays down the history of racism in this country. We talk about enslavement of African people, lynching, and inter-racial rape. Of course, rape is rape is rape, but what I did was show how black women have fought side by side with black men on every issue. They are not the traitors here. As my dad (Michael Simmons) says in NO! “…She exposes the rape. My question is why would that make her a traitor? The traitor is to have a rapist in our community and not warn anybody.” Studies have shown that an acquaintance rapist can rape up to seven times before being apprehended. So when we are protecting a rapist in the name of protecting the community, we are actually making our community more vulnerable to violence.
Also, since the film solely features people of African American descent – as survivors, experts and advocates, NO! plays a role for various communities who are not of African-American descent that says, we can do this from within. I’ve worked with Roma (Gypsy) women and Palestinian women. The concern is if you’re under siege externally how do you talk about being under siege within your community. NO! visually says, yes we have to fight externally, but we will not be full and whole if we keep destroying each other internally.
What is the goal of the company you founded, AfroLez® productions?
The goal is really to make visible the invisible. It’s a multimedia arts company whose goal is to use arts to counteract the negative influence the mainstream media has on marginalized and oppressed people. I started with racism, sexism and homophobia and continued to work out. I believe it’s important to start from the place from which we stand.
What advice would you give to men who want to help end sexual violence?
Heterosexual rape is not going to stop until you get involved. We need you in this movement. A lot of times when we think about activism, we think we have to join some big movement. We must struggle in the places from which we stand. I know more women that have been raped than women who have not been raped. Men know men who rape. They won’t say it that way. They’ll say, “she was drunk,” or “she said no at first.” I would say to men to look around at their peers and really hear what’s being said and challenge it. Even in our families, across the dinner table; we must challenge the statements. That’s where the work begins. In some ways, it’s easier to talk about it with strangers but what about my family and friends? That’s the hard work men have to do. To say, I’m not going to go along with that.
Can you speak to the role of media, pop culture, and entertainment as it pertains to gender based violence?
I studied with the black feminist writer, Toni Cade Bambara for five years (1990-1995). She’s the reason why I am a filmmaker. She taught me to interrogate cinema and what we’re viewing on television. That doesn’t mean do not go to the cinema. There’s nothing wrong with people who do. I do it frequently. I’m really interested in the messages that media tells us. Are we just passive viewers? One thing I’ve noticed over and over again, though subtle, is that women are the root of all evil on so many television programs and films. It becomes a part of our psyche. Then we become OK with it in terms of real life. What does it mean when we become jurors? How does it play out when were asked to be positions of power?
I’d say I have a lot of power in the midst of my marginalization. We all have multiple identities. We can simultaneously be the perpetrator as well as the perpetrated against. I’ve learned this through NO! For instance, black men are victims of white supremacy and simultaneously, they are perpetrators of patriarchy. Privilege is often in the midst of all our being marginalized.
When it comes to language in popular culture, I reflect upon one of my many favorite quotes in NO! by the late black feminist psychologist and my dear sister-friend Aaronette M. White, PhD, “It’s also important to emphasize how very subtle things or seemingly subtle things contribute to a climate that creates an environment where women are more easily raped…if you’re going around for instance, calling Black women names, or putting Black women down, it’s easy to take the next leap to disrespect this Black woman.”
We also have to be careful about jokes. My observation, myself included, is that we use humor as a weapon or to bring up something we don’t want to talk about. I do not think that rape jokes are OK. It happens too frequently. It is terror and a lot of queer people know that. It’s a form of terror. If there is joking about people of color- we call that hate! We have to really ask ourselves, why is it ok in terms of women? What’s funny about that?
What is your hope for this film and the future movement to end sexual violence going?
When I first started working in the movement in the early 90’s there was so much stigma. The silence was deafening. There’s still silence, blame, stigma- but more of us are speaking up and out about the violence that we have experienced. And more even network and episodic TV shows present survivors of rape with an empathetic eye. Social media has changed the entire landscape. And I’m not convinced that sexual assault is at an all time high in comparison to years ago. Yes, it’s rampant. But, I also think we’re simply more aware of it now because more survivors are speaking out. That’s part of the process of eliminating it.
What gives me hope is that more of us are coming out. It’s happening globally. I’ve been lucky to travel internationally and for me just to see the momentum, the organization, and to see more men speaking up and out is life-affirming. I think we can end it. I’m not aiming for my lifetime because I want to think beyond my lifetime. It’s bigger than me. There’s a lot of progress in the midst of the war on women and that’s why they backlash is so intense. More of us are breaking silence around the violence we experience. The more we resist, the more those structures clamp down (like VAWA not being signed). There is a war against women and the fact that there is a strong reaction to it is because we are rising up and saying “no more.” Patriarchal power structures want to clamp down. And, fortunately, our resistance is not containable. Not any more, Thank Goodness.
For more on NO! The Rape Documentary, go to: http://NOtheRapeDocumentary.
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