“Can we start a hashtag which encourages women to share their sexual assault experiences…”
– Ronelle King, Founder
Powerful movements are usually birthed from frustration and on the 24th of November, 2016 I was exasperated.
In that year alone I was almost pulled into a vehicle after declining a ride from a stranger. I was sexually harassed on my way to work almost every single morning which resulted in me changing my route. I stopped travelling by bus and started to pay for a taxi to take me to work because I no longer felt safe at the bus stop. I was raped by someone I trusted, among other horrific experiences. Suffice to say, it reached a breaking point.
These experiences were each traumatising in their own way. Some of them changed me and affected the ways in which I could trust people. The year prior my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD. Healing is a process and I, like many women, had to learn to cope to be able to get through my day. I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome my experiences because it’s a wound that reopens every single time I walk out of my house.
I’m no stranger to sharing my stories, in fact I’ve documented my cases of sexual harassment on Facebook for as long as I can remember in an attempt to give insight into the daily struggle we as women face. From there, I started using my blog to speak out about the ways we perpetuate rape culture in our society, because I believe one of the ways in which we can dismantle it is through education. On that forum, I’ve been extremely vocal about our culture of victim-blaming and slut-shaming and how it re-victimizes survivors of sexual violence. While my posts had enlightened a few men, I was still being met with rebuttals from men who were exhibiting cognitive dissonance and in most of their “arguments” they placed the onus on women to prevent sexual violence. I was even dismissed a couple times as just “another feminist ranting and blowing things out of proportion”.
As this wasn’t something they could relate to, their immediate response was to argue against it. I was faced with a dilemma. How could I effectively explain to people who believe they are entitled to my body that their behaviour is not acceptable? How could I explain to them that this isn’t an isolated incident and that every woman they know has experienced either sexual harassment or assault? How could I show them that this is a societal problem that needs to be addressed? What would make men get involved and call out their male friends on their actions? What would make them reflect on their own actions and hold themselves accountable for the ways in which they’ve contributed to this problem? How could I create a discussion that could force actual cultural change? It needed to be something that they couldn’t easily ignore or dismiss, something that would show the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, assault and rape within Barbados and essentially the region.
I contemplated rallying my activist friends to create PSAs to dispel the myths about rape, discourage victim-blaming/slut-shaming, and essentially force our government to acknowledge that there was a rape culture in our country, so that we could work towards dismantling it. While I was thinking of a proposal to present them with, I got into an online debate with several men who were adamant that only certain women get harassed and if they only changed the way they dressed they wouldn’t be subjected to it. Knowing that this was inaccurate, I attempted to debunk the myth only for it to fall upon deaf ears. I retreated to my blog to write a post on rape culture for easy consumption, when it hit me.
I got the idea to start a hashtag that would create a forum for Caribbean women to share their daily experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. That way they’d be able to see that every single woman they know experiences this, from their mothers to their daughters, from the “bougie” to the “urban”. I envisioned thousands of women breaking their silence, flooding timelines and forcing men to listen. Telling them that enough is enough and they will not suffer in silence one more day. Like our ancestors rebelled against their oppressors, Caribbean women resisting and fighting back against the patriarchal ideals that our society embraces. Unlike our ancestors, we have the internet and what would have taken weeks and even months before another island learned of a rebellion would only take us a few hours. I visualized women reaching out to other women, supporting them and encouraging them to share their experiences without fear of ridicule or shame. Drowning out the misogynistic comments with their feminine solidarity.
I messaged my former colleague and told her my idea. She initially wasn’t interested as she wasn’t emotionally prepared to revisit that part of her life. Which was completely understandable. I told her I was finding it difficult to think of a name that wasn’t cliche, and we deliberated on names before deciding on the hashtag, #LifeInLeggings.
#LifeInLeggings was purposely coined to dispel the myth that only certain types of women are harassed and are deserving of their assault/abuse because of the way they are dressed. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Leggings are the one piece of clothing used in these examples to describe “slack dress attire” and to perpetuate this narrative. However every woman and little girl owns a pair of leggings.
Immediately after deciding on a name, my former colleague was on board. While I was having this conversation with her, I reached out to two other friends and presented them with the same question. They both expressed similar reservations and asked for at least a day to come around to the idea of sharing their most intimate secrets on social media.
In less than a minute, the first post was made and my heart started racing. Then my doubts came: what if women didn’t want to share? What if they had been permanently silenced? What if men attempted to derail the conversation and succeeded? I reminded myself that backlash was inevitable but I couldn’t let that prevent me from trying.
Within half hour of posting, stories started creeping in. Friends and their friends started posting using the hashtag and it wasn’t long before all I could see was #lifeinleggings. Then the first message from a male friend came, “I had no idea. I knew it was bad but I didn’t know it was this bad. I’m sorry.” I was speechless… it was working!
By day 2, the hashtag was viral and Trinidad & Tobago as well as Dominica were on board sharing their experiences of sexual violence. After hearing the battle cry for change, Dominican activists Delroy Williams and Khadija Moore created a sister hashtag, #LévéDominik, which translates from Kwéyòl (Créole) to Wake up Dominica/Stand up Dominica.
Soon after, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Saint Lucia, The Bahamas, Jamaica and Belize joined the discussion. It’s one thing to envisage feminine solidarity throughout the region to take back the power that was stolen from us so that we would finally be able to heal, but to watch it actually happen? Words cannot describe the feeling.
While the hashtag continued to spread throughout the Caribbean and the diaspora, it was decided that it was time to transfer the conversation from online to offline. #Lifeinleggings evolved from a social media awareness campaign to a grassroots movement that’s committed to dismantling the rape culture within the Caribbean through advocacy, education, empowerment and community outreach.
We hope to be the space for conversations around gender equity in Barbados and the Caribbean. This includes an examination of how we got to this point and how we move forward to dismantle the patriarchal system that affects both men and women. We’re collaborating with other organisations in order to work towards individual and systemic changes within our community. We intend to keep this platform as accessible as possible for those who need it.
– Ronelle King, Founder & Director