On Solidarity and Sexual Violence: An open letter to the Palestine Solidarity Movement

The explosion of media coverage of sexual assault and community response to gender violence, following the gang-rape and murder of a Delhi medical student, has sparked a lot of important discussion around the world. What is often missed in this discourse is the fact that the issue of sexual violence extends far beyond India and into our own communities, and that most people who experience it are assaulted by someone they know, and often trust. In activist spaces we tend to assume that we are safe, surrounded by like-minded people, however reports of harassment and sexual assault within hacker, Occupy, and other communities have proven that this is not always the case. Historically sexual violence has been tragically prevalent in revolutionary movements. There is a long and troubling history of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault being forced out of their organizations for reporting their attackers, or staying silent for the “sake of the movement”. At times leaders in various activist spaces have made this even worse by openly reinforcing patriarchy. Stokely Carmichael, storied leader of the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), once infamously commented “The only position for women in SNCC is prone”. The hard work of women’s and LGBTQ rights activists may have improved the situation since then (not that those spaces are immune to sexual violence), but even in today’s social justice movements sexual assault is often closer than many would like to think. I hope that sharing my own story can help spark some discussion about how we want to deal with this issue, in both the wider Palestine solidarity movement, and in our local organizing spaces.

While living in Palestine several years ago I was sexually assaulted by a fellow activist. It happened after what seemed like a pretty normal night of blowing off steam with friends. Earlier that day I met a guy I’ll call “M” through some organizers who were hosting me. We knew a lot of the same people and he worked with a group I have a huge amount of respect for. After hanging out in the evening M and I hit it off and he kissed me, asking me to join him outside. Once we were alone he became very sexually forward, but when I made it clear I wasn’t interested in going further we went inside, and I thought that was the end of it.

Hours later, after I’d gone to sleep, I woke up abruptly to find M standing over me. I was so startled that I gasped, and he told me to be quiet so as not to wake up our friends sleeping in the same room. He got into my bed, and started trying to kiss and grope me against my will. When I told him that I did not want this kind of contact, he ignored me. He became more aggressive when I physically resisted, only backing off after remembering that there were others in the room. When he finally got frustrated and left, I locked myself in the bathroom for a long time before returning to the bedroom and bolting the door.

The next morning I tried to tell a friend what had happened, but was too ashamed to say anything other than “M came in here last night…” I felt like it was somehow my fault for kissing him back earlier that night, and worried that my friends would not believe me, or would take his “side”. For a long time I refused to speak to anyone about what had happened, barely even admitting to myself that I had experienced a sexual assault.

In my head there were a lot of reasons to stay silent. Would people believe my story or think I was a traitor for accusing a popular fellow activist? I didn’t scream or alert others in the room, so did it really even “count” as a sexual assault? I also worried about how my identity would affect the situation if the authorities got involved. M is Palestinian and I’m an American with a huge amount of privilege in Israel and abroad. I doubted the Palestinian police would do much about it, but thought if Israeli authorities found out, my assault could be politicized in ways that I was not comfortable with. I also did not want to endanger the already imperiled institutions we were both associated with. After leaving Palestine and holding all of this in for nearly a year, I finally opened up to a close friend back home, who is also a solidarity activist. Talking with her helped me see my experience in a different light and come to terms with the fact that the assault was the fault of my attacker, and not my own.

I want to be clear; I do not think sexual violence is uniquely prevalent in the Palestine solidarity movement, or even in Palestine itself. I’ve heard too many accounts from too many friends about similar experiences at bars, on college campuses, at parties, and even in their own homes. I’m telling my story now because I consider this movement to be like my family, and unfortunately sexual assault can and does happen anywhere and everywhere, including our “safest” spaces. It is up to us to decide how we deal with it in our communities but I think the best way is to be proactive.

Many Palestine solidarity groups have gotten off to a good start with statements denouncing sexism along with other forms of prejudice, but we can and should do more. Promoting more discussion about how patriarchy and gender violence impact the occupation, our organizing, and our relationships with our fellow activists is a good starting point. How this dialogue is constructed will very from space to space, but some things should remain constant:

1) The onus should always remain on perpetrators not to commit assault, rather than on victims to prevent it from happening. Establishing clear and consistent guidelines about responding to incidents of sexual violence in our organizations, and identifying how best to support those who experience them, is key.

2) We must acknowledge sexual violence as a social problem. While addressing rape culture in our spaces is important, so is replacing it with something positive that affirms the value of all our fellow activists and allies. Addressing dynamics within our groups is a crucial part of this; the idea that some individuals are perceived as being more popular and thus more “valuable” than others can contribute to predatory behavior and the silencing of victims.

3) While it goes without saying that this is a sensitive topic and should be treated as such, we should always conduct these conversations with the knowledge that this issue may already be affecting people in our communities in ways that are not readily visible. It will not always be easy for everyone to hear or talk about. The way we initiate and sustain our conversations on sexual violence must be sensitive to this.

4) Finally, we should not limit our discussion to violence within our own circles, there is also a deafening silence about the sexual harassment and assault associated with military occupation and ethnic cleansing, which is enabled in part by the difficult and often taboo nature of the subject. Addressing this in our organizing will not only strengthen our solidarity with Palestinians, but also can create space for new and creative coalition building.

These are not easy discussions, but I believe they are necessary for creating a truly just and equitable movement. Those among us who experience sexual violence should not feel that we have to remain silent for the sake of solidarity, and should be able to know that we will find it if we choose to confide in our follow activists. The Palestine solidarity movement is not going to single-handedly solve the issue of sexual assault, but we can take action against it and refuse to be complicit in covering it up.