Sisters of Resistance are actively involved in groups working to combat patriarchy, one of which is currently in the process of developing a statement addressing intimate partner violence in the local activist community.
To create our statement, we drew upon the advice of Seattle activist group KIA (Khmer in Action), who, inspired by our sista Robin Suhyung Park’s Open Letter to Community Organisers and Activists released earlier this year, produced the below statement documenting troubling accounts of abuse and harassment but also offering excellent advice for communities working to address this serious and widespread issue.
Spread knowledge. Spread love.
TRIGGER WARNING – The letter documents experiences of intimate partner violence, abuse and harassment and may be triggering.
Dear community and allies,
Thank you for all your support over the last few years. As you may have noticed, KIA has been MIA for a while now. We would like to explain why because we owe it to you as our supporters as well as ourselves to not remain silent. This letter comes from a place of love and a commitment to social change and justice. The quote below is from one KIA core womyn member who was assaulted by the “founding” KIA male member.
“I am a victim of intimate partner violence. My story starts . . . when he hit me, it wasn’t the first time. At a community fundraising event, while I was dancing with another Khmer male, I was assaulted by my husband. Intentionally punched in the eye as onlookers watched in shock. The lack of action immediately after the incident was all too ‘normal’ and only supported the abusive behavior. This letter is a confession. For how can we exemplify ourselves as social justice activists, if we don’t follow what we value and preach to our community?”
This incident brought on a difficult evaluation of KIA and how we as a social change organization could address intimate partner violence. However, what followed instead was a breakdown of KIA values. The male perpetrator refused to have any conversations about the incident or acknowledge sexist dynamics within KIA. After many meetings and a retreat to address this, it became clear to us KIA womyn that the disintegration of the group held more integrity than the continuation of organizing within these dynamics.
Inspired by Robin Suhyung Park, a local poet, student, Sahngnoksoo member who wrote a letter that spoke out about her experience of violence and the failure of the social justice community to respond in a meaningful way. She pointed out the lack of accountability held by community groups that support and are supposed to organize for systemic change when it comes to intimate partner violence.
Robin states, “The community organizer who speaks out against police violence or government corruption cannot condone or remain silent about someone who rapes or beats their partner.” This statement struck a chord with KIA because as we were organizing against deportation and the violent separation of families due to this racist policy, we were condoning other forms of violence – intimate partner violence and homophobia. Many groups and efforts of organizing have disintegrated over the years due to similar issues because of the same cycle of compartmentalizing oppressions placing sole emphasis on race. These patterns of isolating oppressions continue because they are meant to. When we remain silent or are fearful of “airing out dirty laundry” or perceiving it as pointing out the “failures” of the group, we continue to perpetuate these cycles – we are playing right into how the system is set up to divide us. In actuality speaking out/interrupting oppressive dynamics is an act of resistance and being accountable to ourselves and each other in this struggle toward liberation. Furthermore, there must be efforts that include actively challenging personal and community values and behaviors that maintain heteropatriarchy.
We would like to break the silence by bringing to light the issue of intimate partner violence in the Khmer community where, like many other patriarchal cultures, it has been normalized. Often times we hear that intimate partner violence is something that belongs in the private sphere, something that the community has no place in. This principle of privacy also “strongly discourages collective action…batterers are not named and confronted as identifiable men living in our communities. Whereas the battered woman takes the risk of naming herself publicly when she escapes her violent life, as her marital family may often try to slander her actions, her oppressors remain unnamed and protected throughout the shroud of privacy” states Bhatterachearjee, a feminist activist from NY. As a social change organization continually challenging the status quo, we must also re-evaluate this notion of privacy. Other strategies must be examined, one of which the oppressor is identified and the notion of individuality where each womyn surviver is not isolated. Speaking out about intimate partner violence should not be acted in fear or hesitation if our communities were really able to support survivors. Ideally, communities would hold the perpetrators accountable, instead of placing the burden on the survivor or relying on the oppressive criminal justice system.
In an effort to break the silence, we also reached out to all the womyn who had been involved with KIA and subsequently left the group. We asked an open-ended question about their general experience and also a specific question in regards to any hetero/sexist dynamics they witnessed or experienced personally. Alarmingly we found that a total of nine womyn and grrls reported unsolicited sexual advances by one specific core male member. All womyn/grrls identified as single and/or queer and had to decline him on several occasions. This was one of many other unacceptable oppressive violations that occured. To this day, the KIA men have continued to defend their sexist behaviors. It is apparent to the KIA womyn that the men have not made the connection of how intimate partner violence and hetero/sexist oppression are intricately related to the social justice movement. The objectification of womyn/grrls within our patriarchy overlooked and accepted as the norm. When these behaviors are not interrupted, they disempower womyn and also lay the foundation that allows for more explicit forms of aggression such as intimate partner violence. (See testimonies at the end of the letter for other examples of hetero/sexist dynamics that occurred during KIA.)
We ask you as a community member to take steps toward disrupting beliefs and behaviors that subordinate womyn. Strategies include thorough and honest self-reflection of how you participate in these dynamics. Once that is recognized, one can continue to shift internally as well as those around them. There are many ways this can happen, below are a few skills and approaches:
- Interrupt by naming the behavior when it happens
- Challenge by directly addressing the perpetrator
- Support womyn who are silenced in an oppressive situation by dealing with the issue in that specific moment
- Actively challenge system and sexist gender roles
- Engage in meaningful conversations and dialogue without defensiveness
- Share observations by reaching out to other womyn/queer folks
- Defending sexism and/or making excuses for it
- Accepting what is and has been normalized
- Agreeing just to maintain the status quo
- Supporting men when there are womyn that have no support and need it
- Centering men’s voices and experiences
- Listening/watching/consuming misogynist media
- Identifying with men and heteropatriarchal values
- Read ‘Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence, and Women’s Lives’ by Dee Graham
- Read ‘Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire’ by Sonia Shah
- Read ‘Beauty and Misogyny’ by Sheila Jeffreys
- Listen to Stacey Ann Chin ‘All Oppression is Connected’
- Take a look at the facts – National Coalition Against Domestic Violence , California Coalition of Sexual Assault
- Watch ‘End Fat Talk’
- 10 things men can do to end gender violence
- Check your Hetero Privilege
- Check your Male Privilege
- Watch ‘Killing Us Softly’ – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
It is our hope that this letter touches enough people to begin conversations about intimate partner violence, encourages the examination of ways in which we condone it and take the necessary steps toward actively challenging it. Efforts toward social change that does not recognize the explicit oppression of women are not only limiting, but also contrary to true justice and liberation. Thank you for reading this letter and for the support throughout the years. We will continue to learn and grow alongside you.
Khmer in Action
“There is some sort of paradox and perversity about experiencing sexism and oppression within a group that promotes social justice and advocates against systems of oppression. There is something WRONG when safe spaces are invaded and intruders and perpetrators were not strangers but our ‘brothers’. Khmer in Action was supposed to be a safe space for me. I did not expect to ever feel uncomfortable, sexualized, violated or oppressed in my safe space. There were a series of various events and incidents which led to my departure of KIA but the incidences that I will share has to do with sexual harassment from our once male “brothers”. “You use to let me touch you all the time” was the declared statement that was shouted when I had decided the space we shared (at a meeting) was too close and made me uncomfortable. I moved to a different part of the couch. I had never once so even sat close enough to you for you to grace any of my body parts. This particular member then proceeded to laugh and to further continue with his sexist jokes.”
“Before a meeting started, the same KIA male member as above purposely rubbed up against my body. I was startled and immediately turned to face him. He stated ‘You liked that huh.’ I told him that I did not, and that if he ever touched me like that again he’d be sorry. I was told that I was overreacting.”
“I had long identified as queer, but was coming more into my sexuality as a lesbian. I was told by a male member, “You’re not ever really going to be with a women. You just want attention.” I responded by saying that I actually enjoy being with women, in which the same person again said, “Nah you’re just trying to get attention.” I had to defend my own sexuality to a hetero male.”
“When organizing for the SE Asian Queer Conference, the hetero men would not recognize this effort as part of KIA. The “founder” of KIA proceeded to ignore and interrupt us while we tried to update the group about the conference.”
“My partner and I had recently become monogamous, and were both happy to be in a committed relationship with one another. A KIA male member randomly text messaged me and asked “Why are you with her?” He proceeded to send multiple messages about what was wrong with her, while I responded with reasons why I was happy with her. I had to defend my sexuality and relationship to a hetero male. This is one of many examples of how KIA male members were divisive of KIA womyn, and disrespectful of queer and lesbian relationships.”
“A male member aggressively confessed his feelings for me. I had stated that I was uncomfortable, not interested, was seeing someone and asked him to stop. He did not stop when I asked him to. He did not stop when I told him I wasn’t interested. He did not stop when I stated that I was happily seeing someone else. I repeatedly asked him to stop. There were other members in the room. There was a male member witnessing the incident the entire time and did nothing to stop it but in fact further encouraged the confession, until another KIA sister interjected and asked him to stop.”
“When I initially joined KIA it was like I found a second family. The members were able to discuss various forms of oppression, something that I found lacking in some of my other circle of friends. Not only were they aware of issues specific to marginalized communities, but they were passionate about changing them. Over time as we continued to work and organize with one another, I realized that my own understanding of social justice and oppression was limited, as well as that of other members in the group. This was especially true in regards to hetero/sexism, and as my awareness developed I could no longer accept some of the behavior and values of my ‘family members’. There were many times that my ‘brothers’ made me feel inadequate, uncomfortable, objectified, and unsafe.”
“During an important weekend of organizing, KIA hosted many out of town guests from other states as well as Cambodia. Many of them stayed in my home. Being mindful of my own boundaries I chose to stay in my room alone, with the door closed. In the middle of the night while I was dead asleep a KIA male member barged into my room without knocking. I felt alarmed, and whatever it was that he needed was insignificant. He acted entitled to my personal space and violated my boundaries.”
“We were at a weekend retreat, where we were going to specifically discuss and address how hetero/sexism has impacted the group. Soon after I walked into the room, a male member loudly stated, “Dang girl, you got thick!” I was too emotionally impacted by this statement to respond because of my own body image issues due to internalized hetero/sexism. My partner being aware of this, spoke up about how these types of comments continue the oppression of women. She was told that it wasn’t that big of a deal. I then had the strength to respond and was again told by both men and womyn members that we were overreacting.
During the same weekend retreat, my partner and I were in our designated sleeping area. It was still morning, and people were just getting up. Our area was closed off only by a curtain and she and I shared a small sofa since space was limited. The same KIA male member from the example above came into our area uninvited and unannounced, and proceeded to lay next to and then on top of us on the small sofa. We asked him to please get off of us and leave, and but he continued to stay for a few minutes until he was ready and decided to go. This is another example of how KIA hetero males feel entitled to womyn’s spaces, and how there is no respect for lesbian relationships. These were just a few examples of when I couldn’t tolerate it and decided to speak up. There were other times because of my own internalized hetero/sexism that I let it go, laughed it off, in which these behaviors became normalized and perpetuated the unsafe environment for other womyn.”
“When I diplomatically raised the issue of talking about unspoken issues, because I began to see and feel that no one was passionately interested in the projects anymore, I was shut down by one male member. Another female member stood up for me and was shut down herself by him. He yelled at us and continued to express his authority and control with his facial and body expressions. This was an actual pattern since the inception of KIA. A former female member experienced the same oppression, but all of us were too blind from our own internalized oppressions to focus on female-related concerns. This sexist behavior and power play by the males became more apparent to all the females and one male ally. A retreat was planned and most members attended except one male who announced his departure from the group, and insisted that he had no further responsibility to participate in the retreat, whether it was to address the issues or help with the short-term and long-term goals of KIA to improve on. Then a follow-up meeting was scheduled after the retreat where the agenda was to discuss the gang documentary project. All the members attended and it became a perfect opportunity to discuss the issues directly. The issues were raised, questions were followed by denials and high emotions. One male member leader chose to be silent and not to respond, but his contempt was a statement in itself. His silence was broken by the intense disclosure and accusations of the oppressive behaviors imposed by the men. People did not listen and allow themselves to fully comprehend the impact of their words and behaviors on the women. The men reacted and claimed ‘we feel like we need to walk on egg shells’ when it comes to interactions with the women.”
VISION – A strong and loving community of Khmer people working together to create equality for socio-political justice.