5 Haiku for Shailja Patel

shailja ted

Shailja Patel during her TED talk

17 days after Kenyan writer and activist Shailja Patel returned home to Kenya, she was sexually assaulted. The alleged perpetrator is a well known writer in Kenya. For the next 17 days, I’ll be composing new work every day in support of Shailja. Here are 5 haiku that reflect my shock, disbelief and bitterness about this attack. Sexual violence should never happen to anyone. Ever. But it hits home particularly sharply when those who have been so vocal in speaking out against sexual violence become targets…


Kenyan male writer
Searches for his lost nation
In woman’s skin? No.

Was it defiance?
Did he pick fierce feminist
Out of cockiness?

Or a cry for help?
I know this hunger is wrong.
I trust she’ll stop me.

She was so public–
Tireless against sexism.
Why did he pick her?

Or just for her looks?
Beautiful Indian chick.
Never read her work.


Journalists for Justice has released a statement in support of Shailja Patel

In Praise of Shailja Patel and Calling Out Sexual Predators in Our Movements

shailja photo

Kenyan Writer and Activist Shailja Patel

this is a raw, unedited rant from the middle of the night. i’m still furious…

I am heartbroken to learn that my beloved friend Shailja Patel was sexually assaulted shortly after her return home to Kenya. Patel, in her brilliant book Migritude speaks of the post-colonial migrant who is always relocating and never quite at home.

Of course she will be away from many of those whom she loves in this time of crisis. I am not the first friend/lover/mother/father/daughter/son to ache for the chance to hold a loved one in my arms and comfort them in a time of need, this is as old as colonization as migration. I know she has friends/family in Kenya, but in this moment, she deserves to have every single person in the whole world who loves her holding her in their arms. Everyone close at hand at once. I wish I could write myself arms long enough to reach from Berkeley, California USA to Nairobi, Kenya. These words seem so insufficient, and this is the lot of the migrating, perpetually displaced person.

My words feel insufficient to comfort her because, as a friend, I would offer my body–my woman’s body for her to embrace, my flesh to absorb her tears, my shoulder howl into and hold tight. This is how we as women offer our bodies to each other to comfort and to heal.

Let me be clear where I do not offer my body, where we as women do not offer our bodies: as sexual sacrifice. To men. To men of color. To African or Afro-Diasporan men to “feel better” from the horrors of colonization. We—women and men—have endured them together, and we fight them together, but we women will not be your soft landings, your buffer zones, your intimate tissues where you reach into us and let us absorb the tears you are too cowardly or discouraged or numb to shed. Grieve, dammit! We cannot win against colonization if you are constantly betraying us and our movements by accepting the blood money of patriarchal entitlement to our bodies.

Our bodies are not soft couches for you to lounge on but hard desk chairs for you to learn from: learn the lessons from our bodies. Women know how to grieve. Women know how to hold each other in sorrow. Men need to learn these lessons—how to turn to each other in sorrow, how to reveal their broken, brown hearts to each other—or you will keep turning to us, to our women’s bodies, with a glint in your eye, a groping arm in your sleeve, your too-close breath smelling of the colonizer’s rotting humanity. Stop betraying us, yourselves, our movements, and our people with your misogyny and cowardice. Heal.

Journalists for Justice has released a statement in support of Shailja Patel

When Freedom of Expression Isn’t Enough: Pervert Associations Demand Constitutional Amendment Protecting Upskirt Photography

barbie upskirt

Barbie did not consent to this photo taken from under her skirt.

Recent court decisions have ruled in favor of the right of men to take “upskirt” photos, that is to accost women in public, stick cameras under their skirts and photograph their crotches without their consent. The judges based their ruling on the men’s first amendment right to freedom of expression (and completely ignored women’s right to privacy under their own skirts). What’s an outraged feminist writer to do? I could only respond with a parody article.

You’re welcome.

Some people are tired of being harassed, and apparently it’s not women. Yesterday, several groups advocating upskirt photography have begun a campaign for a constitutional amendment to protect their right to photograph women’s crotches without the women’s consent. The American Association of Perverts (AAP) and the American Association of Perverts and Predators (AAPP – a spin off organization whose members left due to ideological differences) have developed a coalition with the Association of Creepy Photographers (ACP) to demand a constitutional amendment that defines a woman’s crotch as part of the public domain.

“We’re tired of being harassed with these petty court cases that we always win,” said a spokesman for the ACP. “The judges always end up ruling in our favor, so the judicial process is just a waste of our time. Time that we could spend accosting women in public and taking photos of their crotches.” An AAPP spokesman added, “If women don’t want strangers to stick cameras under their skirts and photograph their crotches, they should stay at home where their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, and boyfriends can be in charge of their crotches.”

The coalition was emboldened by the recent decision by the Texas court of appeals. [This really happened.] According to The Independent UK, the court, “ruled 8-1 to strike down part of a law which bans taking images of another person in public without their consent and with the intention to ‘arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person’, criticising the ‘paternalistic’ intrusion into peoples’ private right to be aroused.”

According to a spokesman from the AAP, “obviously upskirt photos are completely in the spirit of the founding fathers of our country. We can read between the lines of what they wrote. An all male-group calling for ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’? Come on, we all know what that means. They were basically like an old-school party frat. Men’s right to be aroused and gratified is the cornerstone of this country. At the time, their wives and daughters were their legal property, not to mention any slaves they owned. We don’t think of this as an amendment, as much as a clarification. The founding fathers would definitely have wanted it this way.”

The exact language of the amendment reads: “a woman’s crotch is hereby declared to be part of the public domain, without restriction to photography, video, and sharing via internet, text, email, in any and all media whether now known or hereinafter discovered or invented.”

The Association of Creepy Ob-Gyns (ACOG) and the Association of Texans for Pre-Abortion TransVaginal Ultrasounds (ATPATVU) are requesting clarifying language to include internal photography, as well. The original coalition of Perverts, Predators, and Creepy Photographers is reportedly taking the request under advisement.

In Praise of Emma Sulkowicz: Sending the Shame About Rape Culture Back Where It Belongs

sulkowiczThere’s nothing redeeming about rape. No bright side, no silver lining, no glass half full. In contrast, anti-rape activism is a powerful force that reshapes our world and restores our humanity.

Columbia University senior, Emma Sulkowicz was raped as a sophomore, in her own dorm room bed. When she took the bold and brave step of reporting it to the authorities, the alleged rapist was found not guilty. This, despite the fact that two other women had also come forward accusing him of sexual assault. Sulkowicz was also denied an appeal. Unfortunately, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about this story. College campuses across the nation report a similar pattern of what has become known as “rape culture,” where sexual assault is common and unchallenged by authorities. According to WNYC, “Currently, 76 colleges are under investigation, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Berkeley [where I teach] and Ohio State” for their questionable handling of sexual assaults.

However, Sulkowicz, who is a visual arts major, decided to use her creativity to fight back in an innovative way. According to Think Progress:

as her senior thesis project, she’s embarking on a performance arts piece that requires her to tote her mattress everywhere she goes. But she doesn’t have to do it alone.

Under the terms of Sulkowicz’s thesis — entitled Carry That Weight or Mattress Performance — she’s not allowed to ask for help carrying her mattress. She is allowed to accept help if other people offer on their own, however, and that inspired her fellow students to get organized so they can assist Sulkowicz in a meaningful way.

Carrying The Weight Together,” a group founded by another senior at Columbia, is organizing “collective carries” to ensure that the community will work together to help bear the weight of Sulkowicz’s symbolic burden. They’re committing to helping carry the mattress every day.

Her individual act of boldness has done something unprecedented in the history of college sexual assault, it has inverted the aftermath of rape on campus. We have often seen young men bragging to other young men (or making videos) about their sexual “conquests.” We have rap artists glorifying rape: “put molly all in her champagne…Took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Sulkowicz is equally bold. But this time the survivor of assault is the one publicly drawing attention to the situation. Certainly other women have come forward and told their story or reported the crime, but Sulkowicz has actually turned the tables. Rape survivors are conditioned to be ashamed. Decades of television and movies have told us how it’s done: we are supposed to hide and cower and tell our stories reluctantly on the stand. But Sulkowicz is unashamed and unapologetic. And after dragging her mattress around for days, people are coming to help and she’s rarely carrying it alone. The isolation that rape survivors feel in carrying that burden is, if not lifted, at least shifted and shared. I wonder how the young man who allegedly assaulted her must feel. Does he walk around campus in fear of seeing a gang of students carrying a mattress? Does he walk past mattress protests with red words like “carry that weight” and “CU has a rape problem” and duck his head and walk faster? Sulkowicz has vowed to carry the mattress until he is expelled from school.

But even if he’s never expelled, she is still victorious. And this is the crux of the inversion, the alleged rapist and Columbia University is being publicly shamed. And they should be ashamed. Every university that has permitted a thriving rape culture should be ashamed.

Columbia, like many universities, was originally founded as an all-male educational institution in 1754. It didn’t go co-ed until 1983, nearly 230 years later. Its original mission was to secure the futures of privileged young men. Starting in 1889, Barnard, an affiliated college right next door, began to educate young women. In the old days, strict rules protected young women from sexual contact as well as sexual assault. However, when the so-called sexual revolution meant that colleges no longer acted like chastity protectors for female students, sexual assault flourished alongside consensual sex.

The remedy for this is simple: create a welcoming and sensitive climate and process for reporting assaults, protect victims, and prosecute young men who rape. However, most universities have defaulted to their original mission of protecting the futures of privileged young male students. Previously, any so-called townie or barmaid who reported sexual misconduct by their students would be summarily dismissed, based on her subordinate class position. The class hierarchy has always protected privileged young men’s sexual access to poorer women and women of color. But in contemporary co-ed schools, the university has had to contend with young men raping women of their same class position. And the verdict is clear. The boys will be protected. Their futures must be assured. The girls’ status is revealed for the interlopers they are. Why wasn’t it good enough for us to stay home and be wives? Why weren’t we happy at girls’ schools with limited facilities? If we want to play with the boys, they will show us how much we are not boys. Survivors are left to feel humiliated, defeated, and alone.

For decades, individual women and women’s organizations have been fighting back by all available means. According to WNYC, “In the spring, 23 Columbia and Barnard students filed a federal complaint with the Department of Education.” Emma Sulkowicz is one of those students.

I regret Emma Sulkowcz’s assault, but I celebrate her bravery. In her shameless act, she’s returned the shame to its rightful owners, the rapist and the university.

PUBLIC FEMINIST: Choosing to Challenge my Old School Hip Hop Idol Chuck D

Public Feminist web

“Public Feminist” a parody of the Public Enemy logo. Copyright 2014 by Aya de Leon

2005. I’m performing at the Planet Hip Hop Conference at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ. I’m sitting in an intimate room with one of my most influential hip hop icons, Chuck D. It wasn’t a performance; he was just giving an informal talk about hip hop. And throughout his talk, hardcore old school hip hop fans would yell out opening lines to his lyrics. And call and response style, everyone else in the room would finish the verse. Halfway through his talk, I yell out the opening line to “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, “I got a letter from the government/The other day…” I said never and everyone roars along with me: “I opened and read it/It said they were suckers/They wanted me for their army or whatever/Picture me given’ a damn/I said never!”

In my early teens, I was a peace activist in the mostly white anti-nuclear movement in Berkeley, CA. I found most of my black peers to be concerned with sports, fashion, and socializing. One of the reasons I was attracted to my first boyfriend was because he was a draft resister, the first black draft resister I ever met. But Public Enemy was the voice of my black hip hop awakening to . In that song, Chuck D bridged my two worlds: he was a black man espousing an anti-military, anti-US imperialist perspective within the pro-black hip hop music that I loved.

So it’s been an interesting challenge for me as a writer–no longer being that wide-eyed young girl hip hop fan–coming out publicly and disagreeing with something Chuck D said and calling him out publicly about his sexism. As a fan, I couldn’t initially see his sexism, or didn’t want to see it. But I eventually did become disillusioned. But the love that I’ve always had for him and his vision has meant that I haven’t ever criticized him publicly on a national platform. So, even now, I feel disloyal. Which is part of the internalized sexism that many of us have as black women. Even when men aren’t supportive of us and don’t validate the reality of our lives, we have to be there for them and protect them and not air the dirty laundry. Even though I’ve criticized other black men publicly before, from R.Kelly to Obama, Chuck D is the one that to whom I feel a more personal debt and a duty to be loyal. And it’s good to notice that I’ve disagreed with him thoughtfully, respectfully, in a principled way, with compassion.  But the brother is wrong.

And that same song that I loved so much has a femicidal ending. Here’s an excerpt about that from the piece that appears today in xojane.

In the fantasy narrative of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Chuck D assumes the first person of a draft resister who ends up in jail, steals a gun, takes six corrections officers (C-Os) hostage, and leads a daring escape.

6 C-Os we got we ought to put their head out [kill them]
But I’ll give ‘em a chance, cause I’m civilized

Got a woman C-O to call me a copter
She tried to get away, and I popped her [shot her]
Twice, right
Now who wanna get nice?
I had 6 C-Os, now it’s 5 to go

What happened here? The female officer is the one who gets shot? What happened to being “civilized”?

I’ve written about sexism in hip hop before, and specifically my moment of disillusionment with Chuck D. As part of my hip hop theater show about fighting sexism, “Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip Hop,” I recreated the scene at a Public Enemy concert where I felt the full impact of Chuck D’s sexism:

Chuck D: All right, all right.  I want all the brothers to put a peace sign in the air.  Cuz we’re about peace tonight.  Yeah brothers.  It’s all about peace up in here.

Me: you tell em, Chuck!

Chuck: That’s right brothers, you look good.  Now sistas, don’t think I forgot you.

Me: What do you want me to do, Chuck?  Put a fist in the air.  My fist is ready chuck!  I’m down with the revolution!  Whatever you say, C huck!  I’m ready to battle!  Malcolm said by any means necessary, and you just name the means, Chuck.  You just name the means.

Chuck D: I want all the sisters in the house….

Me: I’m ready, Chuck.  Just name it, Chuck.  You just say the word.

Chuck D: All the sisters in the house….to scream.

Me: [whispers] What?  You just want the sisters to scream?  What kind of revolution is that?  That’s what every rapper wants women to do.  Every stupid sexist sucka mc.  I thought this was supposed to be about knowledge of self, Chuck?  You can’t really mean that’s all you want from me. This was supposed to be too black, too strong.  That’s too whack and too weak.  What about the revolution, Chuck?  I was ready.

But even as I criticized Chuck D in my theater show, I knew he would never come to Oakland and see it. Part of what makes this article different is that today’s social media means that he and I are more connected than before. So when I tweet about this, if I use Chuck D’s twitter handle, or even if I don’t, he may read my words about him, and take offense or have an epiphany or respond critically. And there’s something unnerving about that.

In my xojane article, I am critical of his perspective on fathers and fatherhood. And yet, the feelings of disloyalty I have toward him are typical of those a daughter would feel toward a father. A classic dynamic in heterosexual families is for the father to dominate, and for the mom and kids to whisper their discontent to each other. For all of Chuck D’s limitations, he was one of the only black men in hip hop who was consistently creating content that didn’t sexualize women and who focused on uplifting the community. There was a refuge that I took in his work and his words as a young woman, and, given the climate and landscape of hip hop at the time and later, I will always be grateful to him for that piece of his integrity. At the same time, I won’t settle for a limited vision of liberation out of some sense of black family loyalty.

Recently, black women have been pushed toward loyalty when Obama rolled out his racial justice initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, and it only addressed problems for boys. Just as many black women like Kimberle Crenshaw, Britney Cooper, African American Policy Forum and many others have pointed out, young black women are targeted also. To that end, and to go with the xojane piece, this black mom stayed up way past her bedtime designing a new image, a parody of the Public Enemy logo, called “Public Feminist.” Enjoy.

Sex Work Policy: Is Empathy the Missing Ingredient? Can Fiction Help?


“Practice Empathy” Image copyright by Quinn Dombrowski. Photographed from my computer screen.

As a feminist, one of my central concerns is the well-being of women. I support policies that are designed to ensure women’s health and safety, and this includes sex work policies.

However, I’m not a policymaker, I’m a writer and educator. For the past six years, I’ve been writing fiction about sex work. Since 2009, I’ve been attempting to get an agent and sell my sex worker heist novel. In that time, I have heard one comment consistently from industry gatekeepers: “I didn’t really find the character likable and I couldn’t connect with her emotionally.” A string of literary agents rejected the book with some variation of that comment. They liked the premise, the idea of a former sex worker who robbed corrupt CEOs to fund her health clinic for women, but they didn’t actually like her. Finally this year, I found an agent who loves the book and is now representing me as we take the next steps toward publication. However, I am coming to believe that the book has been impacted by what I will call a crisis of empathy with women in the sex industries. Women outside the sex industries, women who have never been poor, never faced a survival decision about selling sex, are taught to look down on women who have made that choice. Some gatekeepers have had a lot of trouble seeing a sex worker character as a hero.

An important note here is that all sex workers are not female, but sex work is largely about men using financial domination to gain sexual access to women. We need to include male and trans sex workers in policies, but without losing sight of how sex work sits in a tradition of male domination.

There is no shortage of sympathy for women in the sex industries. The sex work activist community has criticized recent rescue campaigns for trafficked women, because they often capitalize on the distanced pity of western privileged women for women in the global South. The privileged western women are manipulated by campaigns of distorted information into giving money to causes that—at best—don’t produce the results they promise, or—at worst—funds don’t even go to the women they are supposed to help.  The western-based organizations make a living or a career for their leaders, but there are widespread reports that many anti-trafficking organizations have practices that further disempower the women they “rescue.” The recent scandal that revealed anti-trafficking “hero” Somaly Mam as a charlatan is only one example of many.

Sympathy causes privileged women to give money and in return they are eager for a narrative, complete with photos and videos, that says “it’s helping! Look at the great things your money has done!” But sympathy keeps the “rescued” brown women at arm’s length. The sympathizing western women don’t get close enough to see the cracks in the rescue façade. This dynamic is articulated perfectly in a post by South Asian sex worker/activist Molli Desi on Maggie McNeil’s blog. Desi writes, of South Asian rescue organizations that ostensibly fight sex trafficking; “many donors [to these organizations] from the West deliberately ignore [the] risks to detained women and girls so as to pursue their self-serving agendas.”

The big outrage here is that trafficked women do need help. They do need resources and services and people to care about their abuse and exploitation, but the leftover structures of colonization and racism lead to westerners consistently extracting more from the global South than they give. That is to say, western women donate money and in return, they feel good about the pretense of having done good. Under historical colonization, the resource extracted was land, or labor, or natural resources. Now the extracted resource is feeling superior and heroic. Sympathy—pity really—is everywhere, but empathy is much harder to come by.

Another area where there’s an empathy shortage is between the following two groups:


  1. current and former sex workers who favor decriminalization


  1. women formerly trafficked, coerced, and manipulated into sex work.


From my perspective, they represent two categories of people, mostly women, who deserve support and protection. The challenge is that while one group needs to be left alone by the legal system, the other needs increased and intensified effectiveness from the legal system. These are very difficult needs to balance. Canada’s proposed sex work reform, C-36, is a perfect example of the breakdown and fighting between these two groups. C-36 has been proposed and promoted by Canada’s Conservative Party. For example, one of the policies in debate is about whether or not sexual services can be advertised in print and internet media. For sex workers who favor decriminalization, this is critical because it gives workers avenues to reach clients that keep them safer and off the street. However, for formerly trafficked women, their abusers have, at times, used some of the same outlets to advertise the services of women and girls they were exploiting.

Certainly there are solutions that could respond to the needs of both parties, and I am certain they have been proposed. But part of the challenge, as I see it, is that the legal reformers don’t have a feminist commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of all women (and men and trans people) involved. Therefore, the debate becomes more about which group of women’s needs will be prioritized. Instead of working together to create solutions that both groups can live with, the two groups are pitted against each other to win the favor of the parliamentary decisionmakers, many of whom are male and none of whom have personal experience in the sex industries. Further, because violence against both groups is so real, both groups feel a real life-or-death urgency to make their case, and the battle escalates.

As a fiction writer, I step into this battlefield to write about sex work. In my novel, I have made the clear decision to present a range of experiences in the sex industries. None of my characters could be described as “the happy hooker,” who enjoys it so much that she’d do it for free. Part of a heist novel is that characters are motivated by the lure of wealth that could lead to financial independence. None of them plans to do sex work after the big score. In the meantime, however, some of my characters are perfectly happy with their choice to do sex work, now that they’re high-priced escorts who are well-paid and well-protected by a crew of women who work together.

There is also a character who has been trafficked and manipulated. She’s not a tragic character, but she’s having difficulty getting out of a bad situation with her pimp. In her, we see how the vulnerability of young people is used by predatory men to exploit and abuse them. Her pimp also uses the immigrant status of young women for leverage, as well.

Finally, the protagonist is the most complicated. She became a sex worker at seventeen when she and her sister were orphaned. She made the choice, in order to keep her sister out of foster care. No young person should ever have to make this choice. Her sexual experiences with clients are all legally statutory rapes. However, for her as a sexual trauma survivor, the agency she felt in being able to use her body to keep her family together was a powerful choice, one that she stands by even years later, after she is no longer a sex worker. I think both sides of the sex work debate would agree that she needed and deserved better options. But part of the missing empathy is that we need to understand women’s choices to do sex work—even underage women’s—as happening in a context where, sometimes, sex work is the best option. As in real life, she was a teen who had been failed by so many institutions: the family, the school system, the healthcare system, the social work system, the colonization of her home country that led her family to come to the US, and on and on. Her decision to do sex work was about protecting her sister from becoming a ward of the state. As I said in my article in The Feminist Wire “Young people are abused and exploited inside of the child welfare system…We want to turn our lens out onto the street, but we need to turn it into the home as well — both the foster home and the nuclear home.” In this context, I think it’s vitally important to have policies on sex work that build toward the world we want—where no teen would ever have to make this choice—but also address the realities of the world we have. It’s not fair to compare young people’s brutal realities to our fantasies of how the world should be.

And not only is that the world that young sex workers live in, it’s the world that we all live in. One of the effects of looking down on sex workers is that the rest of us get to think that our lives are so much better. And there are many privileges that we may have. But we haven’t escaped sexism. We haven’t escaped male domination. Without the contrast of women who are terribly victimized, we see that we haven’t truly found all the power and freedom that we might want in our lives. One of the ways I look to building empathy for sex workers is to locate sex work on a continuum of transactional sexual activity. As I wrote in my article advocating sex work decriminalization in xojane:

There are important criticisms that can be leveled at sex work: any institution where women are rewarded to act out men’s sexual fantasies is part of male domination. I believe that. But these criticisms can be leveled at many different institutions of our society. This happens across the board in media, and in heterosexual dating, relationships, and marriage.

Every woman who’s ever faked an orgasm, or rallied to have sex to put her male partner in “a good mood” before they discuss an important issue in the relationship, is a colluding participant. Few heterosexual women can say that every moment of every sexual experience they’ve ever had was bursting with sexual fulfillment. If there were no male domination, a woman would never feel any obligation to please a man or have any fear of reprisal.

And I want to live to see that world—one without male domination. Ending sexism, and economic exploitation would change everything. It’ll take a lot to get there. And we need to work to keep all women safe in the meantime.


This post was developed out of a twitter conversation I had earlier this week with Alexandra Kimball, Natasha Falle & Seani Fool.

Flashback Fridays: Working Mama Blues

mama nurse covr

me nursing in the classroom my first year of motherhood.


The fall semester started this week & I’m back to teaching. Reminds me of when I first went back to work after I had my daughter. To that end, I’m reviving one of my early mom poems.


Working Mama Blues

U reachin for me every time that I go
Lil brown starfish hand reachin each time I go
Ocean of hurt in my heart when I walk out the do

Grandmas lap is a warm safe place
My own mamas lap is a sweet soft place
But it ain’t good enuf from the look on yr face

When I get to the job work is backed up n late
Scramblin to teach class half prepped n late
Disappointin my students n making them wait

In the middle of class feel my milk letdown
Standin at the blackboard my breastmilk let down
Remind me that my baby on the other side of town

Wish I was in Sweden where they treat mamas right
18 months paid leave to raise a baby right
But Sweden’s too far and too cold and too white

Got only one body but two jobs to do
Got a part time body but two full-time jobs to do
In these united states of the working mama blues


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