In April 2020, Soraya Chemaly wrote a prescient article in NBC Think about how Coronavirus could hurt women the most, and how to prevent a “patriarchal pandemic”. “Societies that value women and their time, work and health tend to be the world’s healthiest, for women, children and men,” the Washington DC-based feminist activist wrote. “The United States is not among them.”
A year down the line, it was clear that her prediction was spot on, not just for the US but the whole world. Women’s income decreased up to 60 percent during the first lockdown months, and 50 million more women are estimated to have slipped under the poverty line. Women’s share of unpaid care work at home went up, domestic violence increased, and job losses hit them worse.
And it’s clear that societies still aren’t valuing women. A new survey last month of over 200 women’s rights organisations across 38 countries found that grassroots organisations fighting for gender justice have consistently had their funding slashed during the pandemic.
For Soraya, the award-winning author of the phenomenal bestseller Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger (Atria Books, 2018), it is clear that crisis situations – like pandemics – only exacerbate fault lines that already exist in any society, and if women are to make any progress, they’ll need to harness their anger to fight for equality. “If ever there was a time not to silence yourself, to channel your anger into healthy places and choices, this is it,” she writes.
The director and co-founder of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, Soraya has long worked to expand women’s civic and political participation, and has challenged gender norms. Her inclination was clear even in childhood growing up in the Bahamas to a Lebanese father and Bahamian mother.
At age eight, her father asked her to clear the table, and she refused as he hadn’t expected the same of her younger brother. “That’s the first time I realised one has to fight for equality, and yes, the fight continues even today,” says the youthful 55-year-old.
Though she was raised a Catholic and was suitably inclined to religion as a child, that bubble soon burst too. “At age 11, I said I wanted to be a priest, and I was laughed at. They said women can’t be priests,” she says of her disenchantment with Christianity and bent towards atheism. “I asked the priest, ‘Why do only men get to be priests just because they have penises?’ He couldn’t give me an answer. Between the corruption of the institution and its lack of reason, I realised by the age of 15 that religion was not for me,” narrates Soraya, who later graduated from Georgetown University in Washington DC and made the city her home.
Having worked for over 15 years as a market development executive in the media and data technology industries, Soraya decided to go back to feminist writing in 2010 using this experience as a framework. By then she had a busy husband and three young girls, and the social pressure to be “the perfect mother” took its toll on her.
“There was an expectation that mothers have to behave in a self-sacrificial way, and it made me sad and angry. The culture at schools perpetuated the image of ‘dad working, mom baking pies’. It was as if all the progress made by women’s movements over the years had stalled, and instead of things getting better, they were actually getting worse,” says Soraya, who currently serves on the board of various American organisations such as Coalition for Women in Journalism and Center for Democracy and Technology.
After giving up her career as a marketing consultant, Soraya threw herself into writing, and soon discovered that internet culture was no better. “It only reflects social mores. Social media is not one-way; we are both creating and consuming at the same time. The internet both exacerbates inequality and allows us a chance to fight back,” says Soraya, who has worked with organisations like Google and Facebook and says they need to make structural changes and not just pay lip service to inclusivity and social justice.
“Five years ago, women writers from India wrote to me about the incessant abuse they faced online – from rape threats to sextortion to blackmail – and they asked for my help to engage with Facebook. And yet, I don’t think there has been much positive change since then,” she regrets.
That’s why Soraya believes anger is the ‘Trojan horse’ to look at women’s issues. “We have detached anger from femininity, and taught girls to suppress their anger, even if it is legitimate,” she says. Soraya and her husband joke that though her book on women’s anger took her 12 weeks to write, it had developed over 10 years in her head.
She gives the example of Donald Trump’s election win in 2016 as a crystallisation of such concerns. “Here was a man accused of sexual assault and even rape by so many women, and yet it didn’t matter to anyone; he became president anyway. His election was the acme of what is wrong in our society, and how women’s issues are completely side-lined,” avers Soraya, who is a contributor to several anthologies, including Free Speech in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World (Hachette Audio, 2020).
“Rage Becomes Her is a book for men. Women already know what’s in it,” she smiles over a Zoom call from Washington DC. The book was recognised as the best book of 2018 by The Washington Post, Fast Company, Psychology Today, and NPR and has been translated into multiple languages.
Since then, Soraya has given numerous talks, including a TED Talk that has since garnered over 2.4 million views, and also co-produced a television campaign highlighting the effects of online harassment on women in politics in America.
She believes the #MeToo movement is “so fraught” because it renders the male role of being providers and protectors redundant. “Here are women saying, ‘You aren’t providing for me, I am financially independent, and you aren’t protecting me either’. It’s a direct challenge to men, and that’s why so many of them are denying it could have ever happened,” she says, referring to the various counter-claims and trolling on social media that targeted women who made allegations of sexual harassment against powerful men.
“Men need to listen, behave and be comfortable with women leading,” she says of men’s role in creating a gender-equal society. “They have to have difficult conversations with other men, and be role models for the younger generation of boys.”
While Soraya’s book is about women and anger, she says, “I could write the same book about men and sadness. They are not allowed the full range of human emotion, and it’s unhealthy for them to have to suppress it all inside.”
Soraya – whose name means ‘midnight sun’ – believes progress has been slow, especially when it comes to clamping down on sexual violence against women in most parts of the world, and increasing the number of women in politics by making the playing field safer and more equitable.
“To do that, we have to shape both the public and the private spaces,” she says. “We have to practise equality at home, in our intimate spheres. Only then will it reflect in the public one.”
First published as the cover story of eShe’s 4th anniversary issue (July-August 2021). Cover photo: Elizabeth Dranitzke
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