“In her heart she is a mourner for those who have not survived. In her soul she is a warrior for those who are now as she was then. In her life she is both celebrant and proof of women’s capacity and will to survive, to become, to act, to change self and society. And each year she is stronger and there are more of her.”
~ Andrea Dworkin
Red Thread Letter #893
Lay Down Your Weapons
Rematriation by Shiloh Sophia
Painted during the transition of my mother, Caron McCloud
Today I am sharing a story about my life and how it is connected with violence against women and children. We are also calling a circle called the Heart of Man, for those in our community who are men, and for women who want to invite men they love into conversation. I have to start somewhere, right?
I was inspired by watching the premier of My Name is Andrea – about the feminist activist, writer and speaker, Andrea Dworkin by my colleague, Pratibha Parmar. The sobs held within me are not mine alone.
This writing will be activating as it is ultimately about violence and recovery. Yet if not now, when? I encourage you to read with loving presence if you are resourced enough at this time. I suggest about 15-30 minutes to read and if called, respond. Having a journal and pen to express your thoughts and emotions may be good too since so many here are creatives.
Your approach and philosophy may be different than mine, I am not looking for agreement, rather, just to speak my own voice and hopefully engage yours. Every time a person tells their story, healing happens and we are less alone in all this.
For those interested in exploring this topic, my husband Jonathan and I are hosting an online circle, The Heart of Man: Engage with us in a conversation about really waking up to our part in the great unfolding and opening the hearts of men to join us in the great work. Register Here.
Lay Down Your Weapons
A Call to Stop Hunting Our Mothers
By Shiloh Sophia
Despair, like wildfire, is sending warnings: alert, alert, danger is! Oh, the fear that no one will believe you when you cry, FIRE. They may even say you are mad. But it is here, and here and here. See this blackened field? This skeletal tree? See right here where this house is no longer standing? Only a solo chimney remains bearing witness to generations of families. You believe fire has been here when you see it with your own eyes.
What about despair? Will you believe it when you see it with your own eyes? Despair that is thousands of years old is woven into every soul witnessing what we are witnessing now: the normalcy of violence against women and children.
If only we could admit it, as a people, that we must change this pattern now. If only we could see how it impacts every area of our lives even if we aren’t experiencing it ourselves. Many of us are afraid that if we start crying out now, we won’t be able to stop…
In 2020 we moved into the house on the hill in the trees I always dreamed of having. I told my husband Jonathan “I am unpacking all the way for the first time in my life. I’m never going to leave.” Two weeks later we were evacuated for a month and then multiple times after that. I became afraid and my nervous system jumped at every beep. We slept with our phones on and the alerts kept coming.
A year later we watched the green tunnel of trees leading up to our house burn. As we drove down the hill, I was truly afraid. This particular fire was surprising and got out of hand really fast. We were evacuated ten times in two years. We came back to a house intact, but I never really returned, not really. I finally got the courage to tell him, “I love this house and I don’t want to live in this kind of fear if I don’t have to.” Our hearts ached but we moved. He believed me that I didn’t want to live in fear and he said he didn’t want to either. This fear was a fear I could do something about. I could move into a neighborhood instead of a forest. I had a choice.
This photo was my backyard with so many beautiful trees, many of which we had to remove. I added an overlay of my painting.
We have been out of the house on the mountain for just over 7 months. Yesterday I finally told Jonathan that living in fear wasn’t something new to me. That the level of fear of the fires wasn’t just about fires, but from a lifetime of heightened awareness. Hypervigilance for myself, for my mother, for my sister, for women, for my family, for trans people. I got to choose not to live where I was in more danger from fire. As a woman, I can’t just move to a new house. A new town. A new man. As a woman, I never ever lose sight of being in danger. And many women and children, do not have a choice to leave danger.
This topic of safety is ever-present for me. When women are working in our art gallery alone and a man walks in, alone, we have to assess our safety level every time. I have had to talk to three women about this already – and all had the experience recently of feeling concerned. I have a friend who owns a gallery and she and I have spoken about this too – many times the wrong man has walked through that open door and how real the panic is for us. Her husband stands at the door during her events for women to protect them. Wow. We grieve together. To always be wary, to always be watching. Not just from personal experience ~ although we have plenty ~ but because “he” is always there, lurking, always, in reality, and in our consciousness. Proof is needed, and we have plenty.
I am not saying I live in fear, as in, my entire being is riddled with fear. It isn’t like that. My entire being lives in and from love, not fear. But fear is here because I am aware. I feel despair about our abject ignorance about the violence against women and our allowance for it. How can I not? The unwillingness for us as a people to truly acknowledge what it is like for women to live in fear since we are tiny babies. The allowance for this in our human culture is an astonishment. I cannot comprehend it. I can move out of a house but I can’t move out of my body. I can’t make this place safer for my sisters although I have spent my life trying.
Most of the time no one wants me to be the downer, bringing statistics and asking everyone “To wake up and pay attention, please. We have a problem. Danger. Danger. Danger.” I have to defend my position over and over… Yes, yes, of course, I love men and, of course, and yes I know it is not all men, and yes, I know that not all victims are women and, of course, there are cruel and violent women. I know. I know. I actually know the numbers and the realities. My eyes are fixated on the most compromised among us.
Half of us humans on the planet are largely in danger by the other half. And of that half of us in danger, women of color are the most in danger. The statistics bear witness to the truth – but only the truth that is reported. Not the whole truth. The men and trans people who are harmed are also harmed by largely other men. But this isn’t about one man, this is about a paradigm that has been allowed to exist for thousands of years. There is no end in sight. Those of us who work with women know that things are getting worse, not better. More awareness does not equal change. But it is a start.
Here is an inspiring mural from my friend Shilo Shiv, who came to Sonoma to do a teaching with me on Fearless Belonging as well as a mural at MUSEA. She is an Indian contemporary artist who uses art for social change. This is a photo from her Fearless Collective tour in 2021. About this mural Shilo says “As the country was reeling with the nightmarish news from brutal gang rape of a Dalit woman in Hathras, we chose to speak of how women want to be touched. In a world where there is constant focus on ‘bad touch’ we reclaimed our potent pleasure with a group of Muslim women from the city.” Yes, yes, yes. SO much good work being done.
When I was a young feminist, I started making art that was intentionally healing and affirmative for women. I took Domestic Violence training and led events for women in shelters. I discovered my very specific approach to working with women who are in abusive situations. I was so stunned by what I learned about the level of harm we were experiencing as women. Through art as a path of healing on behalf of myself and others, I felt I could hear the cries of the world. This feeling, of unreasonably loving women who were in harm’s way – informed everything I did. I was 24 when I finally got what was happening in the world regarding women and children – and I was horrified. Not at any point did I turn on the men who harm, I felt compassion for them and a desire to be a part of the solution with them. Working with men who want to help hasn’t been as readily available as I had once imagined. I have talked to lots of men about helping with this cause but nothing has come to fruition yet. That’s why Jonathan and I are hosting a live circle in September to explore this conversation with all of those who are called.
This journey of awareness and activism through art and story has been in my life for a long long time. In 1994, I attended the San Francisco Premier for “Warrior Marks,” the movie directed by Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker with Tracy Chapman, and became aware of what women were experiencing globally and specifically regarding FGM. I heard the call they ushered forth – that any form of violence sanctioned by tribal culture is a human rights violation. This changed my life trajectory as an artist and activist powered by love.
When I was in my twenties I had the experience of being stalked by a previous lover. When we were together I didn’t see this behavior in him, that came later. Every day on my way to work he would follow me, ducking around street corners and behind buildings. Waiting for me after I got my coffee. Waiting for me when I prayed to the statue of the Madonna right on the edge of the Financial District in San Francisco. I was very scared and jittery even when I was in my building at work. Even when he wasn’t there, it was as if he were there.
Finally, one day I turned and ran toward him. He tried to run. I caught up to him and was face to face with him. I began screaming at him for my freedom. He froze and listened. He walked away. He was gone then, gone, gone. I knew he was gone in reality but in my spirit, he was never gone. Ten years ago he came into the gallery on a day I wasn’t there, left his number, and told our staff member that he was an old friend who used to know me, ‘back in the day.’ Right. He said, “I always knew she would make something of herself.” Really?
“Feminism is hated because women are hated. Anti-feminism is a direct expression of misogyny; it is the political defense of women-hating.” ~ Andrea Dworkin
As my art, my feminism, and my advocacy work for women began to grow, I gave talks with my art behind me, asking everyone to wake up and take responsibility. Elder gentlemen who “had my best interest at heart”, suggested I not be so angry. Women told me I wasn’t going to go far if I couldn’t find another way to talk about things. I had to calm down in order to be heard. Wait. Did you even hear what I was saying? Aren’t you alarmed with me? I wasn’t yelling AT someone. I wasn’t blaming a specific someone. I was asking, powerfully, for whoever could hear me to wake up and stop the violence in the world and in themselves.
I am forever grateful for the times I was able to speak at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This photo, from 2019, is with Carmen Baraka above and below Carmen and Alexis Estes from Native Hope. Both women shared about the suffering and healing of Native American women and children. Carmen was tireless in her pursuit to end violence against women and children and especially Native American Women. She lived in astonishment about what was happening here and how it was being dealt with. She is an Elder in our community and remains our Art Ancestor and a guiding light to us here in Intentional Creativity.
I always understood that those who create violence for others have violence inside. That violence happened to them, too. This doesn’t need to be a blame situation. The people causing harm had also been harmed. Got it. What I wanted was for those around me to SEE WHAT WAS HAPPENING to women and children and to do their part to name it, stop it and speak to it in every way we could.
In his 2015 TED Women Talk, I heard Jimmie Carter tell the truth with my own ears. He said he used to think income inequity was the biggest problem – but he has changed his mind – “I think now it’s a human rights problem, and it is the discrimination against women and girls in the world.”
I didn’t want to leave those who were perpetrating the violence behind. I wanted them to hear me, too. I figured they didn’t know they had a choice not to be violent. Maybe no one told them or they didn’t know how to control how they felt. I wanted men who harm to hear that endangering women and children’s lives was no way to live. I wanted to show them how much they are hurting inside, too. I wanted to tell these men that we could end rape overnight. I wanted to ask them to help me stop it. To ask other men to stop. We could end sex trafficking overnight if the appetite for it would go away. The statistics about gender-based violence are a horrifying day-to-day reality backed up by staggering statistics that keep growing. As fast as we are undoing it, more murdered women are there to be counted.
But this isn’t good to talk about at parties, gatherings, and circles. This isn’t the way to make friends. Some women have created their lives to speak to it and are hunted and hated. A huge following of people who hear you often translates into “your life is in danger.” The women I know who speak the truth need bodyguards. I didn’t want to live like that. I didn’t want to become more of a target. Even writing this I wonder if it is worth it.
I already knew what being a target was like. I had an amazing mother, Caron. Isn’t she so beautiful? And brilliant too. She was a target for men who wanted to possess and dominate her and by women who wanted to be near her but were ultimately jealous and betrayed her. Being her child showed me so many things. Like when to choose to be a target and when to choose to hide my truth and myself. Even my former partner of 16 years told me that if I kept sharing and teaching what I know, “they” would find out about me and come and silence me. He had an almost prophetic strangeness about my work in the world. Yet he also taught me how to protect myself. He was abused as a child as well, with a mother who would never admit her part in it. We tried to heal, but we didn’t make it all the way through.
Women and children are in danger and it has to end. How? How? How? My mothers knew what I know. They taught it to me, my sisters, and my cousins. They fought for justice their whole lives. Many voices were heard, and lives may have even been saved, but the changes they thought would happen have not happened.
We had to move from Sonoma County when I was seven years old because we were in danger. We were hiding women from the men who raped them. When the police got involved, they told us to stop what we were doing. They also became a danger to us. My mother said the police in this situation were more dangerous than the rapists we were hiding from. My cousin and I had to leave our home and move far, far away. Girls were no longer safe there, where home used to be. We used to watch the abusive men drive by on their motorcycles from our balcony.
Later, much later, because it takes a long time to hear women’s voices, justice was served for the women. Our efforts brought their cases all the way through the court systems and won/lost. But those women were never safe again. They had to lose their identity, risk their children’s lives, and more. And we lost our home and village. Was it all worth it? It just goes on and on and on. I am ever so grateful for the experience to know that I must do my part in the great unfolding – to protect, serve and educate.
When will it ever end? This could end overnight. Despair could stop running like wildfire through our lives if we could just SEE, FEEL, and KNOW that putting women in constant danger is no way to live. And stop it. Sue Hoya Sellars, my other mother and art mentor used to say – “There is no future in it. Women are the mothers of the future for all genders.” Sue, too, was attacked. I remember so clearly the day she told me the stories. She was abused by her brothers in their home and by the foster fathers she went to for protection, and by her mother’s lovers. She was kept in a highchair so long her legs didn’t develop right. These stories and my two mommies are dear to my heart. My work in the world is completely informed by their stories and what they taught me, and what I also teach.
I know that nothing I have been through is nearly as horrible as what many have gone through, but being the child of two women survivors of violence by men, coupled with my own experience has given relevance to my passion and to my awareness.
But why? What is at the root of misogyny anyway? It doesn’t make any sense. I have heard the arguments. I have seen the histories. But still, it is an irrational, largely unconscious framework operating, lurking in our subconsciousness. I make images that are the antidote to what I see in the world that hurts us. The images and stories I tell are part of the mending. I use my life force to mend and not tear down.
The violence against women at this time in history is an astonishment to those of us who have spent our lives working for this very violence to end. Asking for a world that is safe for women; asking for women to stop being raped and murdered isn’t feminism. I am a child asking for my mother to stop being hunted. If you are listening, and you are a person who harms, stop hunting our mothers.
This conversation isn’t just part of a woman’s movement. This isn’t a woman’s problem. This topic should be at the top of every mind and heart of every human being. We should all be so very concerned. The warning signs are everywhere. Men and boys are victims too, not just women, and they are largely perpetrated by other men. Alice Walker says, ”When the hearts of men change, the world will change.” How do we change the hearts of men who harm? I know they are hurting, too. They do not know what they are missing in themselves or their relationships. Men who harm, may not even know WHY they are doing what they are doing. I know that some women also harm their partner and children, I am speaking about the majority numbers and patterns over generations.
I do know that through our work I try to educate and provide an experience for women that awakens them as much as they can be awakened and invite them to help others to wake up. Gifts passed from hand to hand. I turned my desire to serve women into a calling to educate us. I have tried. Mostly I feel I haven’t done enough because when I was younger, I thought that as soon as people actually know what is happening, they will stop. But no, that is not true.
People are so over “angry women”. We aren’t angry women in a woman’s movement. We are asking for everyone to wake up to a centuries-long femicide and when we aren’t heard, we sometimes begin yelling, hoping someone, anyone, even just one person will hear us and know they are not alone; hoping one person will hear us and stop being the one hurting others.
Can you hear me? Can you hear our cries?
We start here, just by crying out and telling our stories. My story of the fear of fire was compounded by a lifetime of fear, of my own, from my own experience, and from my mother being hunted. My mother was attacked many times, and, one time, when she was pregnant with me. Does my bone memory hear her cries when my human ears were not yet formed? My mother didn’t tell me this story, Sue did and I cried and cried. They were worried that I would be okay in my mother’s womb. I am. I am okay. But I feel somehow I know this experience in the field of my own awareness. I can hear my mother’s cries and her missing hair and so much more.
I do not come here in anger. I do come in despair braided with awareness and hope. Hope that every time I speak, healing is happening. Every time a person tells their story, healing happens and we are less alone in all this.
I have lots of questions for men who care. If men are interested, invite them to join us for The Heart of Man circle to explore and support each other. It stems from questions of the heart, about how to create a transformation so complete that the appetite for violence is no more. Can we do that? Do we want to? Do you, fathers, brothers, sons, lovers, do you want to talk? I know there are resources out there…and in here….
Feminist author, Andrea Dworkin said, “We are very close to death. All women are. And we are very close to rape and we are very close to beating. And we are inside a system of humiliation from which there is no escape for us. We use statistics not to try to quantify the injuries, but to convince the world that those injuries even exist. Those statistics are not abstractions. It is easy to say, Ah, the statistics, somebody writes them up one way and somebody writes them up another way. That’s true. But I hear about the rapes one by one by one by one by one, which is also how they happen. Those statistics are not abstract to me. Every three minutes a woman is being raped. Every eighteen seconds a woman is being beaten. There is nothing abstract about it. It is happening right now as I am speaking.”
I am writing this today because I am so moved, and needed to speak my voice. If just one woman hears this and feels comforted that she is not alone. Or if just one man reading this chooses to stop what he is doing or help another man stop what they are doing, then it is of course, worth it. Recently I went to the Castro Theater to see the U.S. Premier of “My Name is Andrea,” a film about the feminist activist, writer, and speaker, Andrea Dworkin. This is another film by the incredible director Pratibha Parmar and her partner Shaheen Haq. As I begin to watch I feel the deepest sob rising. I thought about letting it go out loud. Instead, I quietly sobbed with my friend sitting next to me, as we clasped hands. If I had started crying – would others join in? Could we wail together? I wanted to. I didn’t. When we walked out of the dark theater into the light – my activist Elder hugged me and said, “We just aren’t going to stop.” No, we aren’t.
I have lots of questions for women who care. My biggest inquiry is this: “If women could spend our life force freely because we are free to act and create, what would we do? What would we create if we weren’t continually fighting this power-over conquest story? What story could we make?” I have tried with all the might I have to create a community where what we are doing isn’t in reaction to this violence. We are aware of it, and working to mend it, but not because of it. I learned that from Alice Walker. I had to choose art and joy right alongside my broken-hearted activism. She told me, ”Take the arrow out of your own heart instead of spending your entire life searching for the archer.”
How can we put love at the center, now? Can we? Will we?
From my heart to those hurting us: Stop hunting our human family. Hunters lay down your weapons. We can see you and we can find a way home together. We can all recover. We can. I know you have been hurt, too. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I was 15 when my mother and I were held up by knifepoint at our door one night after a Christmas party in San Francisco. I listened to my mother negotiate with him. She said, “You don’t have to do this. It doesn’t have to be this way.” We looked him in the eye. She handed him her purse. I say this to abusers, “You don’t have to do this. It doesn’t have to be this way.” My mother and I worked with Glide Church in San Francisco where they work with both abusers and the abused. New models are needed and are happening everywhere.
I believe we are here to recover together. All are included in the recovery. May our hearts be mended in time. Thank you for taking the time to read, to feel, to remember and I hope you feel called to act in your own way. This is a call to end the violence. This is a call to engage in love.
And the Mama, the great Mama of all Mamas who is the mother of all of life, She said, Open Your Heart. Lay Down Your Weapons, by Choice. We will recover together.
With love in my heart, and hope for change rooted in my soul,
Over the years I’ve felt so blessed to have loving women surround me who care deeply about the rights and safety of women and children. Here we are with beloved Carmen Baraka Spirit Warrior for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women 2015.
Thank you Pratibha and Shaheen Haq. Thank you, Andrea, an ancestor of the movement. #mynameisandrea. I hear your call. Andrea’s work is widely studied, and misunderstood. At the heart of what she was asking for was the right to be safe. She invited all of us to the awareness that not being safe was no longer a way to live – and that we could stop this. She wanted us to see the systems underneath what allowed for this kind of violence to persist and exist. Honoring someone’s story isn’t a full alignment of values, it is the honoring of someone’s story who needs to be heard. I honor her story and I am grateful for her voice, loud in the deafening silence.
Statistics on the violence against women and children:
- Did you know that a woman or girl is killed on average every 11 minutes by someone she knows. (UNODC)
- Did you know that six women are killed every hour by men, mostly men they know or their own family. (World Economic Forum)
- Did you hear that 37 women are killed every day by a partner or member of their family. (UN)
- Did you know that over half of women globally suffer physical and sexual abuse by their male partners? (Global Gender Gap Report)
- In one study, 45% of women killed were described as overkill, way beyond what was needed to kill them.
- Here in the US, the latest study finds that nine out of 10 victims (92 percent) knew their offenders (MS. Magazine)
- Adding to the urgent need for Gun legislation, the most common weapon used was a gun, according to the most recent edition of the annual Violence Policy Center (VPC) study “When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2018 Homicide Data.”
- “Femicide, generally understood to mean the murder of women for being women, a term often applied abroad, is a global issue that significantly impacts Black, Indigenous, poor, and migrant women. It’s oftentimes thought of as violence relegated to peripheries, border cities like Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, or endemic to regions like Latin America or Africa. The truth is that femicide is an ever-present and growing crisis in the United States.” (Teen Vogue)
- “The number of women killed in the U.S. has been steadily rising since 2014, according to the most recently available data from Violence Policy Center, and 1,948 women were killed by men in 2017. Women under 29 and women of color, including trans women, are disproportionately murdered—Black and Native American women experienced the highest rates of homicide between 2003 and 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disappearance of Native American women is a critical problem—nearly 5,600 were reported missing last year, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and this is violence that has persisted over centuries and permeates communities. And, so far in 2019, at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed in this country.” (Teen Vogue)
- In America 1 in 6 women has been the victim of a rape or attempted rape. Men are 1 in 33, by other men. Can you imagine that?
- They say that in the USA, 34% of victims of sexual assault are under 12. (RAINN)
- This is so horrifying. 1 in 4 girls and one in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18. What?!
- More than 1/3 of women who report rape as a child experience it also as an adult. What? What are we saying? Could this be?
- We know 96 percent of people who sexually abuse children are male.
- Rape is the most underreported crime, 63% are not reported. That means it is so much worse than we know. NSVRC
- How about this one – 99.5 percent or rapists will never spend a day in prison.
- The numbers show that 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence. Nsvrc
- In the US 20 people experience intimate partner violence every single minute. Isn’t that outrageously sad? (DES)
- Did you know that 10 million children a year are exposed to domestic violence and 90 percent of those are witnesses to the abuse?
- Domestic violence has spiked significantly since lockdown, increasing 300% in some places. I prayed the whole time for those on ‘lockdown’ whose lives became a living nightmare. (Time Magazine)
- Did you hear that domestic violence shooting deaths was up 60-600% in some US States (Frontline)
“While one in three white women report having experienced domestic violence [during the pandemic], the rates of abuse increased dramatically to about 50% and higher for those marginalized by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, citizenship status, and cognitive physical ability,” says Erika Sussman, executive director of the Center for Survivor Advocacy and Justice (CSAJ), a support and research organization. (Time Magazine). In most cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse and molestation under lockdown are unreported as victims couldn’t call hotlines with their abuser right there on the couch or in the next room, reading their emails and checking their phones. (Anasuya Isaacs)
Nationwide, African American women continue to have some of the highest rates of sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse in the U.S. By the time they turn eighteen, it is estimated that forty to sixty percent of African American girls have experienced sexual abuse. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. Black women are also more likely to die at the hands of a current or former intimate partner than any other group in the country.
In the time that it takes to read this piece, a Black girl will have been sexually assaulted and a Black woman murdered by a husband, lover, or ex-partner.
In the time that it takes to read this piece, a Black child will be left motherless as the result of homicide by her one and only true love.
In the time that it takes to read Clifton’s poem, a Black child will be molested by a “trusted” family member who has groomed them with promises, treats, and whispers to ‘stay silent’. (LAProgressive magazine)
“Amnesty International has called on the US government to fully restore tribal jurisdiction over crimes on Native lands in the face of staggeringly high rates of sexual violence against Native women, according to a report released on Tuesday.
Nearly one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women have been raped – more than twice the average for white women and probably an undercount given gaps in data collection, according to the report.” (The Guardian)
Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.
~ Kofi Annan who served as seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations
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