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In the age of #MeToo, Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger is a reminder that women’s anger is justified and necessary.
“This is the real danger of our anger: it makes it clear that we take ourselves seriously. This is true in our homes and in our public lives. By effectively severing anger from “good womanhood” we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.”
~ Quote from Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger
It was coincidental that the #MeToo movement in India picked up steam just around the time that I was reading Soraya Chemaly’s book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. It was also Navaratri, and the image of Maa Kali –raging, bent upon destroying injustice, loomed large in my imagination.
As Soraya Chemaly points out, women who speak up against their harassers are constantly gaslighted. Criticisms about the “tone” of their voice are used to trash their entire message. We have witnessed again and again, over the past few weeks, that the women who are courageously sharing their pain, are accused of destroying the lives of “innocent men” or men who “just made a mistake.” The #MeToo movement then is not just a campaign against sexual harassment, but it is a rebellion against, as Chemaly puts it, “the injustice of having one’s social experience denied and hidden from communal understanding.”
The book however does not limit its scope to rage born out of sexual harassment or the silencing of women who are sharing their #MeToo stories.
Rage Becomes Her begins with an exploration of how women and girls are taught not to express their anger. This section, in particular brought back many memories of how I was told as a child and a teen (and am told even now, as an adult!) that “so much anger is not good in a girl.”
The book then goes into how holding in anger has disastrous consequences for women’s physical and mental health and well-being. To quote from the book, “Women and girls experience anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, a desire for body modification, and sexual dysfunction at substantially higher rates than boys and men do. Three themes run like underground rivers through all of these phenomena: self-surveillance, self-silencing and suppressed anger.”
In each of its chapters, it explores a different facet of a woman’s life, and discusses the injustices that, unsurprisingly, cause women to feel provoked. This includes both issues at a global level, such as the wage gap, or high rates of violence against women; or issues at the individual level, such as the unrealistic expectations from women as mothers, wives and caregivers, which have consequences that go beyond the personal–proving that in today’s world, the personal is indeed political.
It is especially commendable how she places men, front and center, as the cause of a woman’s troubles — “we don’t seriously address the risks women must take as they navigate boys and men. We take risks when we post our profiles on dating websites and meet up with strangers. We take risks when we can’t pay for gyms (in lieu of exercising outside), taxis or car services, and other pricey ‘safety’ measures. We take risks every time we get pregnant. We take risks when we report sexual harassment, assault and domestic violence. We take risks when we go to the police…”
In another place, she narrates an incident about how her husband, oblivious to the discomfort of their daughters and herself, chose a route which felt “unsafe;” pointing out that men are clueless about our lives as women, and that this itself can become a source of anger and frustration for many women.
The book, then, is a detailed answer to the question, “Why do we need feminism?”
The best part is that it does not stop with exploring why women are angry. It goes on to suggest practical ways in which women can use their anger productively.
I especially related to a passage in which she talks about how she uses writing to convert her negative feelings into something that can become a vehicle for change. As she puts it, writing led her to “action, clarity and a community that was thinking and feeling as I did.” With such practical advice, the book then is as much a call to action, and a mandate for women’s freedom of expression, as it is a feminist text.
There are some technical terms in the book, but it is not bogged down with jargon.
The author holds the reader’s attention by using personal anecdotes (such as how she dealt with a boy who kept toppling a tower made by her daughter, or the story of her grandmother who was kidnapped and taken for a wife by her grandfather), research data and popular news stories (such as the story behind cancellation of the development of a male birth control pill or the story of Elliot Rodger who targeted women in a mass shooting in 2014) as a springing board to leap into broader ideas about women and their emotional lives.
These ideas are often completely fresh perspectives that reframe things that we may have taken for granted. For example, one such idea that was a completely new learning for me was that women, who have learnt that expressing their anger may cause negative reactions from others, may not use a “flight or fight” (run away or fight) response to danger. They may instead use a “tend and befriend” (smile, cry, try to calm down the opposite person) response. This in the context of #MeToo, is especially relevant.
Entertaining is the wrong word to describe a book that speaks so passionately and seriously, but it is an engaging read, filled with punchy quotable quotes.
It is certainly not a book for the lazy reader. It forced me to reflect on my own life and behaviour, so it was an uncomfortable and emotionally exhausting read. As I read, I felt as if a fire within me was being slowly stoked, and by the end, I was left feeling well and truly angry – a sign that the book had done its job.
Like the #MeToo movement, the book is both triggering and empowering. It may drive you to tears, but it will also leave you feeling as if you have a weapon that will help you effectively fight the injustices around you. It is unflinchingly honest, infuriatingly accurate and thoroughly inspiring.
The book is surely a must read for all women, and for the men who want to be better and to understand what women’s lives are like.
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Book cover via Amazon
Image source: a still from the movie Mrityudand
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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