‘Aishah Shahidah Simmons’

Badass Activist Friday Presents: Aishah Shahidah Simmons

photographed by Calvin Finley

It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire cultural change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.

My interview partner this week is Aishah Shahidah Simmons, documentary filmmaker, writer, lecturer and activist. She’s the producer, writer and director of NO! The Rape Documentary, and she screens her work all around the world. You can follow her and her work at @AfroLez and @InnerLiberation.

Here’s what we talked about:

You’re a filmmaker, writer, lecturer and activist. That’s a lot of hats to wear. Why don’t you start by telling us what your day-to-day works looks like right now?

Yes, it is a lot of hats to wear, which is why I also use cultural worker. That term was taught to me in 1990 by Toni Cade Bambara, who was a Black feminist cultural worker extraordinaire, my teacher, and my Big Sista-friend. Every day is literally a new and different day. However, there are some things that rarely change. I’m a practitioner of vipassana meditation. Part of my practice is to meditatively sit twice a day, every day for an hour at each sitting. I used to be and, at times, I still am very resistant to sitting because I viewed it as a time obstacle to my doing my cultural work. Life experiences, however, consistently show me that sitting is a non-negotiable resource that enables me to do my cultural work. After sitting, I do some form of exercise (walking or swimming are my preferences) and then I’m usually able to begin the external work. I check my email, facebook, and twitter accounts. I also check various blogs and other sites. If I allow it, the aforementioned can very literally consume my entire day and night because it’s non-stop action on the cyber highway.

When I’m not on the road presenting and talking about the issues raised in my cultural work, I juggle between several projects every day: I’m working on an essay for Queering Sexual Violence, a forthcoming anthology edited by Jennifer Patterson. As non-heterosexual people, our sexuality is frequently problematized (oh, that’s why you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender?) both outside and inside of the mainstream anti-sexual violence movement. If we allow it, this type of homophobic, transphobic, and heterosexist thinking and commentary can put us on the defensive or even make us feel ashamed about our sexualities and/or gender identities. As I frequently say, if sexual violence made folks queer, most of the world would be queer. I believe Queering Sexual Violence will be a space where Queer activists/cultural workers/scholars will radically delve into anti-sexual violence prevention, organizing and recovery work without having to defend our right to be who we are. I’m grateful for Jennifer’s courage and vision.

I’m also working on the Foreword for Lisa Factora-Brochures’ forthcoming anthology Dear Sister: An Anthology of Letters and Essays for Survivors of Sexual Violence, Written by Other Survivors and Allies This sacred collection of letters and essays is a powerful offering of love and healing from survivors and allies. This anthology is intentionally meant for post-trauma. Lisa’s powerful vision is a love offering in the form of a healing road map of letters from survivors and allies who already took the journey. I’m really humbled to be a part of this “love-centered” healing anthology.

I’m a member of the Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth Indiegogo fundraising team. Produced and directed by Pratibha Parmar, the prolific and award-winning filmmaker. Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth will be a feature documentary film about the life and times of Alice Walker, a foremost American writer who made history as the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1983 for her ground breaking novel The Color Purple. Pratibha’s films, most especially A Place of Rage, documentary film on African-American women and the civil rights movement featuring Angela Davis and June Jordan have both influenced and inspired me as documentary filmmaker. And, I definitely see my cultural work, especially NO!, as a continuation of the work that Alice Walker and many other Black women cultural workers created in the 70s and 80s. Now, it’s all about the fundraising so that Beauty In Truth will see the light of day in 2012, the 30th anniversary of the release of The Color Purple.

After being on hiatus for over one year, I resumed post-production on Liberation from Within, my forthcoming documentary about the first 10-day vipassana meditation course, held in India, for people of African heritage worldwide. Liberation from Within will explore both how this 2500 year old universal, non-sectarian technique taught by Buddha is being used as a tool for social change; and why African descended people from Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, Zambia, England, United States journeyed to India to learn and practice it together, with people from India, Mongolia, Russia, France, Argentina, and Singapore for 10-days. I’ve experienced vipassana meditation to be one (not the only) way to lead to my own personal liberation. Liberation from Within, will highlight the wide range of ethnically and racially diverse voices who participated in this her/historic gathering. Usually, most especially in the West and if one is not Asian, practicing the teachings of Buddha is viewed as a White experience. Too often, unless rooted in Asian communities, many, definitely not all, of the Western sanghas are overwhelmingly White. Definitely over time and as a result of more and more people of Color are getting established in the practices of the teachings of Buddha, there has been a powerful shift in terms of the diversity within the sanghas, but for many people of Color, it’s still a struggle. Once funds are secured for the post production phase, Liberation from Within will document how vipassana meditation is both libratory and transformative for all people, without exception. I’m most interested in the healing and wellness of not only the community from which I come in this lifetime, but for all communities worldwide. It’s my plan to complete this project in 2012.

You wrote and directed the documentary NO! The Rape Documentary, which premiered in 2006. Can you tell us something about what prompted you to make this documentary?

Well, hindsight is always 20/20. When the idea for NO! was conceived in the very early 90s, it was in response to the egregious backlash against Desiree Washington, the young Black woman who accused Mike Tyson of raping her in 1991. I was so horrified by the vitriolic response to Ms. Washington’s charges by many Black men and women. There was this notion that she was a traitor to the Black race because she came forward and accused a high profile Black man of raping her. Prior to her charges, Tawana Brawley accused four White men of raping and sodomizing her; and she was viewed as a heroine by many Black men and women for coming forward. The contrast between the two is so very stark. Desiree Washington was castigated, maligned and thrown to the metaphorical wolves by the community from which she comes, while Tawana Brawley was championed and celebrated.

My goal was to make a documentary, which addressed the collective silence in the Black community when Black women are raped by Black men. Initially, it was only going to feature the voices of Black women. I envisioned NO! as a “speak out” piece, which would include present-day testimonies by Black women survivors, spoken word, and dance. Over time however, I realized that it was imperative that I move from enslavement of African people in the United States until present-day. I understood that before I could address intra-racial sexual violence contemporarily, it was critical to examine African-American her/history in this racist and sexist country. Additionally, men can stop heterosexual rape. Based on this, I included the voices of Black men who are working to eradicate gender-based violence in our non-monolithic communities and worldwide. I also incorporated spirituality, specifically Christianity and Islam. So many women may never ever go to a rape crisis center or call a hotline, but they will go to their Ministers and Imams. They look to their churches and mosques as refuges. Based on this I thought it imperative to touch upon the ways in which religions have condoned violence against women; and equally as important how women have used religion to heal from the violence they experienced.

What were your hopes and aspirations for the project, and to what extent do you feel that you have succeeded so far?

In the early days, I told myself, Tamara L. Xavier, a co-producer and the director of choreography of NO!, and others that I am making this documentary because I want to help Black women who have been raped and/or sexually assaulted. It’s quite fascinating to me because I was looking externally and not internally as an incest and rape survivor. Looking back at that time period, I was in the embryonic stages of my own healing from the trauma that I experienced as a child and young woman; and yet, I wanted to help “Black women who’ve been molested or raped…” I share that to say, in my quest to help other Black women, I very literally saved my life…

In the 1990s’, my goal was for NO! to be seen and discussed throughout Black communities in the US. Because of the atrocious universality of rape, I also hoped that other women, who were not of African descent, would view and discuss NO! in their communities as well. However, at the time, I wasn’t sure if that would happen. I never ever in my wildest dreams envisioned that NO! would be subtitled in Spanish, French, and Portuguese; and viewed, discussed, and used as an educational anti-rape tool in countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, Pacific Islands, South America, and the Caribbean. There is something very powerful to have women, and some men, who don’t share the same ethnic/racial/national history as me and whose mother tongue is different than my own say to me, through a translator “NO! is my story.” This speaks to the sobering global reality of rape, the power of cinematic storytelling, and underscores that my 11-year journey, seven of which were full time, to make NO! was not in vain.

I’m extremely elated to share that this week, I shipped 26-copies of NO! to Althea Hart, Project Coordinator of Project STOP NOW!, an important OVW/USDOJ funded-initiative that focuses on the prevention of violent crimes committed against women at UNCF member colleges and universities. This means that NO! will be available on 26 Historically Black College/University campuses in the US. Words can’t adequately convey how much this means to me for so many reasons and in a myriad of ways. I will blog about this in the near future.

While there are some things that didn’t happen, including a national broadcast of NO! on either public or cable television (I’m still disappointed that that never happened!), I would say that in so many ways, I surpassed my original hopes and aspirations.

At the Line Campaign, we talk a lot about enthusiastic consent. Where do you draw your line? How has your personal definition of consent changed over the years?

Hmm. These are complex questions for me. I really draw my line at consent. I believe consent must be the fundamental and non-negotiable foundation between any individuals who are engaged in sexual activity. It’s important to be explicitly clear that consent is not coercion. If there is any doubt whatsoever, or any covert or overt pressure, then it’s not consent. And, there cannot be ANY consent between a child/adolescent/teenager and an adult. At the very least that’s statutory rape.

*Non-sequitur* While it’s grotesque that it has taken Roman Polanski 35-years to finally admit that drugging AND raping a 13-year old girl was wrong, I hope ALL of his supporters will reconsider their disgusting (my words) defense of Polanski.

My personal definition of consent has really deepened over the years. While I wasn’t raped as a child, my 10-12 year old body was fondled, touched, and kissed, against my will, as a child, by my grandfather. My introduction to my own sexuality didn’t include consent. Shortly after the molestation began, I told my divorced parents what was happening and very unfortunately, they never took me out of the situation. As a result, and in spite of what I was verbally told by both of my parents about consent being my right, through their inaction, I experientially learned that I didn’t have a right to consent with my sexuality, if it’s a “trusted” family member. I do not share this to demonize my parents. Quite the contrary. I share this because we’re all so very complex human beings. Yes, my grandfather molesting me for 2-years and my parents never taking me out of the environment was torture, to say the absolute very least. At the same time, that is part of the story, and a huge one, which has impacted my life in horrendously profound ways. However, it’s very rarely all bad or all good. It is. I’m not nor will I ever condone what happened to me. It’s too much to go into in this interview but know that I will be writing about all of this and more, in my future book project on the making of NO!

In college, I had very consensual and pleasurable sex with my first boyfriend one year before I was raped, at 19, by an acquaintance in Mexico. Let me tease this out a little further because with all of us there are so many layers to our her/histories. I was raped one night; then the next day, I met a new guy. In my quest to reclaim my body and my voice, I had consensual sex with the new guy I met. There was a time, when I would tell my story of being raped and stop with the rape because I was ashamed that I had consensual sex the day after my rape. I was afraid that people would think I was a “slut,” a “whore,” and/or a “lose” BAD woman. And unfortunately that is what I was called by some (feminist minded, I might add) Black women and men. Also, I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe I was raped because I had consensual sex 18-24 hours after my rape.

Present-day, there is no shame. And the words “slut” and “whore” don’t silence or shame me at all. Yes, I believe I used some poor judgment, but I’m no longer ashamed to tell my story in full detail. I’m willing and open to talk about my judgment, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I could’ve prevented my rape. Most importantly, my actions in 1989 will never again be used as weapon to impact how I think about 19/20-year old Aishah. It took a lot of hardcore work and years for me to get to this place, but I’m here now.

Post the ending of a relationship in June of this year, I’m intentionally and indefinitely (not to be confused with circumstantially) celibate. I’m not wearing my celibacy as a badge of honor or a statement that I’m better or less than folks who aren’t. This is not about purity or reclaiming my 2nd (very, very long way from that, thank Goddess!) virginity either. In fact, I don’t subscribe to any of those notions because I believe they are entrenched in patriarchy, misogyny, shame, and blame. My celibacy is about how I choose to reclaim my psychic, emotional, mental, physical, and sexual space on my terms.

I share about my being celibate because I believe there are two spectrums where societal norms encourage people to feel shame about their actions (or lack thereof). One is, if you’re a non-monogamous or polyamorous woman. The other is if you’re an intentionally celibate woman. I believe it’s really important that there are safe, sacred, and consensual spaces for all of us to BE in our diverse sexualities. And, yes, I believe celibacy is a part of sexuality. I get tired of how shame is used as a weapon to get people to conform to what is viewed as “normal,” which always depends on who’s the reality definer of the moment. As a Black feminist lesbian, I’m usually outside of most societal definitions of normalcy. However, even within my communities, there are norms of sorts. I’m not interested in conforming to them if they’re not healthy for my psychic, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and sexual well-being.

What has been on your mind lately? Any blogs, newsworthy events, pop cultural items or deep thoughts you’d like to share with us? We would be happy to hear!

This past week alone has been so intense. I feel like I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster. Palestine’s quest for Nationhood, Troy Davis’ murder by the state, the ongoing SlutWalk(s) controversy continues ~ BlackWomen’s BluePrint released their Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk (if you’re not on Facebook, you can read the Open Letter here) and AF3IRM released their AF3IRM RESPONDS TO SLUTWALK: THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT IS NOT MONOCHROMATIC statement; and the physical transition of Wangari Maathai.

I’m struggling very hard to find the words to express both my deep pain and sheer outrage about the plight of Palestinian people who have been and are living in an Apartheid State for decades. It’s kind of dated, in this fast paced information highway, however, I firmly believe “Justice for Palestine: A Call to Action from Indigenous and Women of Color Feminists,” is an important read. I also stay on top of Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Democracy NOW!

We must abolish the death penalty state by state until it is no longer existent in the United States. Troy Davis’ legalized murder is really reprehensible. So many organizations and individuals have weighed in on his murder; and the egregious racist flaws of the Criminal (In)justice system in this country. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness is a must read. Judge Mathis’ video commentary on Davis’ execution, is powerful and really gets to the heart of the matter. Rahiel Tesfamariam, Founder & Editorial Director of Urban Cusp, is behind the vision of Where Do We Go From Here? In Memory of Troy Anthony Davis a powerful collection of 40+ reflections from ministers, leading scholars, activists, artists, journalists, students and parents who came together to create virtual community to explore how do we move from ‘Chaos to Community.’

Since May 2011, I’ve been engaged in numerous dialogues and even debates, with a wide range of racially and ethnically diverse women, about SlutWalk. It’s exhausting to say the least. While so very necessary, struggle can be exhausting to say the least. What is very fascinating about this specific struggle is that in spite of the intense dialogues and some times heated debates about SlutWalks, there usually is a foundation of a shared common goal of ending all forms of gender-based violence. It’s really about the paths that we choose to take in doing this work.

Before I share my thoughts, it’s very important to note that in the spring and early summer Morgane Richardson, Creatrix Tiara, Harsha Walia, Andrea Plaid, and Erica Lorriane Williams all of whom are women of Color based in Canada, Australia, and the United States have raised concerns while also supporting the concept.  Their writings, and in the specific case of my sister co-conspirator/friend Andrea, our voice dialogues, have been a lifeline.

This week, @Alicia Fiasco said in one her tweets “It’s the SlutWalk, not the Slut Pride Pride.” I couldn’t agree with her more. Additionally, my sister/comrade/colleague Vickie Sides’ commentary that both the critiques of and the support expressed by a wide range of very diverse Black women signify that it’s a “‘Both/And,’ not ‘Either/Or,’ Period.” deeply resonate with me.

Speaking at SlutWalk Philly was a very empowering experience for me. It marked the second time in my life that I publicly went into all of the details of my molestation and rape. I’m very painfully aware of the egregious, vicious and atrocious history of the word “slut,” which is rooted in the most barbaric forms misogyny/patriarchy/sexism. I know how it has been used and continues to be used as weapons against all, but most especially African, Arab, Berber, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latina, Indigenous, Roma (Gypsy) women, children, gay men, and trans people often without too much recourse in North America, and around the world. The words “slut” and “whore,” or their equivalents in so many languages, have been used and are being used to condone Enslavement, Genocide, Militarism, Human Trafficking, Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, Sexual Assault, Femicide, Domestic Violence, Prostitution on and on an on.

In my own work with screening and discussing NO! both in this country and internationally, I frequently see and hear how those terms are used, even by the those who say they oppose gender-based violence, to shame and blame non-monogamous and polyamorous women, teenage “fast” girls, sex workers, and queer people. Based on this, I’m not going to run from the word “slut” and again, this is not about my reclamation.

Sister/comrade/colleague Stephanie Gilmore really said it best during her SlutWalk Philly speech, when she said “The word “slut” does not have feminist origins or meanings, and it does not belong to me or my people. So when it comes to the label “slut,” take it or leave it. It isn’t mine to give, accept, or reclaim. But I am reclaiming my body, my space, my own sexuality, my NO’s and my YES’s. And perhaps simply doing that makes me a slut. I commit myself to fight with each and every one of you – in this fight against rape and sexual violence, you will never be alone.”

I believe that when it is no longer acceptable to rape, beat, molest, murder, enslave and/or traffick the “sluts” and “whores” (however they are defined and by whomever is defining them) in the world, then and only then will it no longer be acceptable to rape, beat molest, murder, enslave and/or traffick any of us. It is not until the margins of the margins of all societies are centralized that we will be truly liberated and free.

I definitely have critiques of SlutWalks (which is not a monolithic group), most especially as it pertains to representation and participation of people of Color. In North America, the voices and perspectives of women and trans people of Color have been relatively speaking very low. We must move beyond Whiteness being viewed as universal with one or two tokens of Color. It is the height of racism to expect or even want people of Color to feel like it’s their march too if there isn’t representation not only on stage but most importantly in the planning and organizing stages. And, if there isn’t engaged (not tokenized) representation, the statement shouldn’t be “We reached out, but ‘they’ don’t come.” The question is “Why aren’t ‘they’ coming?” And, there should be unanimity about not moving forward with any planning, until there is an answer and a solution to the lack of engaged representation of people of Color. I don’t know, but perhaps if these types of steps were taken months ago, there might not be so much controversy amongst a wide range of people, many of whom have a demonstrated track record of working to end all forms of gender-based violence both across North American and globally.

Finally, I want to say Rest In Power to the Spirit of Wangari Maathai. A founder of the Green Belt Movement, Dr. Maathai was a Kenyan environmentalist and women’s rights activist. A ground breaker and trail blazer in so many areas, she was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. An author of several books, Dr. Maathai was also featured in the documentary film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai. She will be terribly missed by many throughout the world. I am most grateful for her powerful legacy, which, among many things, is a call to action to replenishing the earth.

“‎We are very fond of blaming the poor for destroying the environment. But often it is the powerful, including governments, that are responsible.” ~ Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940 ~ September 25, 2011)





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