Each year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof hosts an essay contest for American students. One writer is selected to travel with him for two weeks to a region of Africa to report on human rights issues facing that part of the continent. This is an experience I’ve had my eyes set on for several years, and this January, I finally submitted my essay in hope of being the next “Win a Trip” contest winner. While I wasn’t chosen, writing the essay was worth it. I passed the entire day I spent drafting this essay slipping in and out of tears, revisiting stories and memories that have made me who I am.
In these 698 words, I manage to describe only a small portion of my journey as a feminist, a writer and an activist. My perspective has continued to evolve and transform since submitting this piece. Understanding where you stand is a never-ending process, and I constantly feel that I am learning new things and redeveloping my point of view. In the end, this essay portrays only one aspect of what I believe in, who I fight for and what I want to do with my writing, but it gets to the essence of my passion, the foundation.
Why you would like to go on a reporting trip to the developing world with Nick Kristof and what in your background is relevant to the Contest?
I know a woman who was raped and left to soak in a puddle of her own blood. Monsters tore deep into her being, destroyed her will to live and stole her womanhood. A broomstick scratched at her insides, leaving splinters in her violet flesh. The splinters turned to black trees with branches like claws that reached up from within her and caged her in a living hell. There, a ghost of a woman, she remains.
I met her in a theater in small-town Arizona, where she stood beneath a single light that cast circles under her eyes. I knew they were only shadows, but it seemed to me those circles were cavities the world had carved with a dull and jagged knife. Her eyes lifted and I saw suffering behind them. She told me her story, and I cried.
The Vagina Monologues. “My Vagina was My Village.” I was 15.
Three years later in an auditorium at the University of Arizona, my voice was her vagina, was her village. My performance paralyzed the audience. They weren’t sure whether to applaud or let my words drop like bombs upon their sheltered reality. I made them face her. I made them face themselves.
Soon after, I met this woman again as I watched foreign correspondent Lara Logan relive her own dehumanization. Shaking, she described the hands, the flagpoles, the sticks that raped her. She endured it all once more in order to break “the code of silence,” she said. Again I felt the agony of her story, so common, yet so unspoken, among my fellow women.
Then in July, a small, black hand slipped into my palm. I turned to greet the smiling eyes of Jacquelyn, a Maasai girl from Narok, Kenya where I was volunteering. In her eyes, I saw the same woman I’d encountered before, but in this little girl she had yet to be broken. Jacquelyn told me she had run away from her home in Maasai Land, fleeing marriage and female circumcision. “I want to go to school in America,” she said. “Then I will come back and help other girls.” Hearing this, I smiled, but inside I threw punches at my privilege and I felt anger pulsing in my veins. I knew she probably wouldn’t get to America. But at least she dared to try.
You see, the woman I met for the first time four years ago has never left me. I found her behind veils in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Trapped in Thailand’s red-light district in Disposable People by Kevin Bales. Buried in the bush in Jeb Sharp’s coverage of mass rape in the Congo. I am her village, and I believe that it is my responsibility to break the silence, just as other journalists have done before me. So I speak up. I’m a reporter at my college newspaper, a part-time blogger and a full-time feminist. As a student studying journalism and political science, I’m acquiring the skills to advocate for women worldwide and help them fight for their humanity. Because humanity truly is at stake here. The urgency of this issue cannot be denied. Empowering women and girls is key to securing a better world, for a world in which women are raped, beaten, burned and ultimately destroyed is destined to ruin us all.
With the experience you offer, I hope to expose injustice and compel people to action. I hope to use my voice and my words to instill a sense of crisis in my readers. In every story I tell, I want them to see the woman I write for and realize that we are her village. We are her allies. I will not squander this opportunity because everything within me requires that I use it to tell the stories of my sex, whether they are stories of oppression or emancipation.
I know a woman who is ready to accept your challenge. She is resilient, passionate and ready to learn. She has invested everything in this opportunity and she is prepared to struggle, to fail and to try again.
I know a woman who will not be silent.
I am this woman.
University of Arizona
Jan. 21, 2012