Us Too

Seattle-area women reflect on the cultural risks and benefits of sharing their #MeToo stories

HALEEMA BHAROOCHA walks across a room like she means business — shoulders squared, back straight, head held high.

She reaches out first to initiate a handshake.

She doesn’t wait to be spoken to.

A senior at Seattle University studying sociology, Bharoocha directs the campus Gender Justice Center; she’s also vice president of the Muslim Student Association, and a Global Leaders Fellow.

She lifts weights and boxes.

She’s not to be messed with.

As a Muslim-American woman, Bharoocha has learned to navigate a society that at times seems to deliberately misunderstand Islam while grudgingly accepting the truths that women have to tell about harassment, exploitation, abuse and assault at the hands of men.

Bharoocha fills the room the way she does for a reason. She does it on purpose to project to the world her unwillingness to be made small and vulnerable.

I’ve come to visit Bharoocha on campus to talk about the impact of the #MeToo movement on women of color and women from cultural groups whose experiences with sexual harassment and assault — and whose stories of empowerment — add complexity to a period of wrenching storytelling and long-overdue accounting.

“Won’t keep quiet” has gone to war with “Quiet as it’s kept.”

Even so, the journey toward breaking silence and holding men accountable can pose risks for some women that might not be obvious on the surface.

Bharoocha, 19, says she and her peers grew concerned that much of the coverage of this watershed moment focused on the harassment and assault experiences of white women.

Long before the Weinstein scandal, women of color were at the forefront of the fight to be heard — and believed.

An African-American woman, Tarana Burke, started the “Me Too” movement in 2006 specifically to support low-income black and brown girls who had experienced harassment and violence.

Legendary Latina activist Dolores Huerta recently told PBS’ “Frontline” that female farmworkers have suffered from a sexual-harassment “epidemic.”

Last summer, in Seattle, a King County Superior Court judge handed lower-wage hospitality workers a legal victory when he threw out a lawsuit by hotel owners opposed to voter-approved protections for hotel housekeepers — a field with high percentages of Hispanic, Asian and immigrant women, and where sexual harassment and mistreatment are common. Advocates are pushing the City Council to require written contracts, workers' compensation and other benefits for house cleaners and nannies.

A nationwide intimate-partner and sexual-assault survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted between 2010 and 2012 found that 49.5 percent of multiracial women, 45.6 percent of Native American women, 38.9 percent of non-Hispanic white women, 35.5 percent of non-Hispanic black women, 26.9 percent of Hispanic women and 22.9 of Asian/Pacific Islander women had experienced some form of physical sexual violence.

“It was frustrating to see so many people left out in the margins,” Bharoocha says of the early days of #MeToo.

DRESSED IN BLACK when we meet, Bharoocha epitomizes strength and defiance.

Still, “There’s just so much that I’m carrying around with me,” she says.

Bharoocha was born and raised in the Bay Area by immigrant parents. Her mother is from India, and her father’s family comes from Pakistan and Myanmar.

For Bharoocha, who recalls grade-school classmates using sexually vulgar language to tease her for wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim woman’s headcovering, her religious identity greatly influences her connection to the movement. Muslim women, even those who dress modestly, face sexual harassment too.

She describes an incident two years ago in Saudi Arabia, during a pilgrimage to Mecca, when a man at the airport intentionally grinded against her sister.

“I’ve become hyper-aware of the looks now,” Bharoocha says. “Where does this end? How much are we going to keep changing and modifying ourselves for men?”

She doesn’t want men to hold doors open for her.

She’s exhausted and angry, and she knows it’s not healthy.

“But I always feel I have to be physically strong and emotionally strong,” Bharoocha says.

Bharoocha founded the Gender Justice Center to create a safe place for students to unpack “the messy truths and contradictions we carry with us every day.”

She says she faces a difficult choice between calling out patriarchy and bad behavior within the Muslim community on one hand, and defending her community against negative attitudes about Muslims on the other.

Bharoocha says it’s also crucial to help young men identify misconduct among other men and learn how to intervene.

“It’s not just the job of girls and women to look after their bodies,” Bharoocha says. “Men have to have these conversations too.”

SONORA JHA, an author, feminist scholar and journalism professor at Seattle University, says she’s found an ally in her 22-year-old son, an Indian-American college student living in a #MeToo world.

They had intense conversations after news broke about allegations of sexual coercion against “Master of None” star Aziz Ansari, who is Indian American, by a woman who had gone on a date with him. Ansari apologized, but the woman’s account sparked an uncomfortable debate about what constitutes sexual consent.

Jha, who was born and educated in India, detailed how she and her son bonded over discussions about the implications of that story and the broader #MeToo movement in a widely shared essay in The Establishment titled “To raise a feminist son, talk to him about Aziz Ansari.”

“Raised in patriarchal India and adrift in the rising toxic masculinity of America, I found comfort, even healing, in the voice of my son, an Indian-American male, the feminist I raised on my own here as a single mom,” Jha writes.

Mother and son decided to “let all of these heads roll,” Jha says in reference to the men who’ve fallen in the wake of accusations. “We both decided that we were going to believe everyone.”

The conversation between mother and son went deeper.

“What we need to talk about is training men to read women the way women have been trained to read men,” she writes in the essay.

Jha, 49, says she told her son to be sensitive to the reality that women sometimes quietly tolerate improper or coercive male behavior and abuse, out of fear of consequences or a sense that no one will take them seriously if they tell.

If the perpetrator’s a fellow person of color, she adds, a woman might stay quiet to help ease his strain.

“We’re conscious of the fact that men of color have it rough already,” Jha explains. “My thing is, we are protecting our men, but who’s protecting us?”

As a feminist scholar, Jha spends her days trying to undermine patriarchy, but it’s complicated.

While working at a major newspaper in India, she complained to management about a colleague who sexually harassed her. The man was let go, only to be brought back to the newsroom later on.

“I almost quit journalism because of that guy,” Jha says. “I chose not to go public because I didn’t want to be that woman who accuses a guy.”

In the South Asian community, she says, a “violated woman” risks being branded as less desirable, or she could bring shame to her family.

“It’s so deep-rooted in me, this association with shame,” Jha admits. “There’s levels and levels of shame attached to speaking out.”

“It’s also like a class thing,” she says. “This doesn’t happen in ‘good’ families.”

As we speak, word is spreading online about allegations of harassment and intimidation against the beloved indigenous author Sherman Alexie, a Seattle resident and a vocal advocate for indigenous women.

Alexie, a member of the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene tribe, apologized to those he hurt but denied he intimidated anyone into silence.

“We’re triggered and we’re reeling from all of these stories, but really this is the process of cleansing,” Jha says of the stream of allegations. “That kind of cleansing is painful in a lot of ways.”

TRAUMA’S BITTER WATERS always find a path to the surface.

For Salma Siddick, the tears came at a busy cafe while talking to a reporter about all the #MeToo incidents she mistakenly wrote off as no big deal at the time.

Siddick, a 34-year-old native of Zimbabwe whose family moved to Kirkland when she was 17, talked about the awful things men have said to her when she’s called out bad behavior.

“I was called a bitch,” she says. “I was called an angry black woman.”

Siddick falls back on what her mother always says: “Suck it up. Dry your tears. And prove them wrong.”

One of the first times Siddick heeded those words was after she was struck by a truck at the age of 6. Her femur broke in two places, but the doctors failed to properly reset the bones. Kids at school, and even some adults, teased her for her awkward step.

Siddick came back strong and even competed in track.

She literally learned how to stand tall against adversity.

“My physical scars and invisible scars shaped who I am,” she says.

In Zimbabwe’s cultural mélange of African and Indian influences, she says, women learn from an early age to place the community’s needs ahead of their own.

At the same time, Siddick’s mother taught her that in order to best be of service to others, you have to take care of what’s inside of you.

Working for gender and racial uplift at the YWCA in Seattle, where she’s the social media and content manager, has given her new insight into the ways we internalize the negative words and actions of others, but also into how people turn vulnerability into strength.

When Siddick recounts an incident from a few months ago in which a man she’d formerly been involved with groped her breast during a social gathering despite her trying to push his hand away, it is an act not just of disclosure but self-care.

“I don’t live in a victimized state,” Siddick says. “That’s not who I am, ever was or ever will be.”

Siddick made a vow: No more “truncating” herself in the presence of men. No more going out of her way to save misbehaving men from embarrassment.

“I said, ‘I’m done. That’s never gonna happen again ... Next time I will cause a scene,’ ” she remembers thinking after that humiliating social encounter.

“My truth speaks volumes more than another person’s entitlement or fragility.”

Siddick says she’s had bad experiences with men of all races, but the intersection of racial- and gender-based misconduct is an important distinction for women of color.

She shares another, more recent, unwelcome advance involving a man who happened to be Asian-American.

“He said to me, ‘Most people of my race don’t like black people, so you should be happy that I’m talking to you,’ ” Siddick recalls.

There was so much wrong with the comment.

Siddick let him have it: “I said, ‘Sir, please step away from me ... For future reference, if you want to hit on a lady, don’t say stupid s---.’”

Siddick says she prepares herself every day for the possibility of “stupid s---” like that happening.

“That’s insane; I’m putting on armor every time I go out,” she says.

Siddick’s energized by so many women unapologetically speaking up, daring society to turn a blind eye to their experiences. In her mind, it’s about time.

“I feel like my vibranium level has been pumped up a thousand percent because of the #MeToo movement,” Siddick says, using a reference to a fortifying metal held sacred by the African empire of Wakanda in the hit Marvel film “Black Panther.” “I want us to show up and be the best we can be, and we can’t do that if we feel we are depleted. But that filling up comes from within.”

FOR SEATTLE-BASED transgender-rights activist Danni Askini, the #MeToo movement offers an opportunity to expand our ideas about gender-based harassment and violence and how to talk about it.

She knows a number of trans people, and gender-nonconforming friends, who’ve also endured harassing questions at the workplace about their bodies and sex lives, comments that would be totally out of line if they were posed to anyone else.

“Women can create uncomfortable work environments for trans people,” she points out.

Askini says she’s been asked offensive questions from politicians while lobbying for protections for trans people.

For those occasions, she’s perfected her soothing “NPR voice” so as to sound less threatening to public officials whose help she needs to push through reforms.

“I have to maintain this decorum as the benevolent educator,” Askini tells me during a visit to the offices of the Gender Justice League, a nonprofit that focuses on political advocacy and social services in the trans community.

Askini, 35, has lived many of the issues she tackles in her work.

Back in her home state of Maine, she once had a supervisor who kept remarking on her attire in meetings, which made Askini feel uncomfortable.

She complained to the human-resources department.

Astoundingly, “They said, ‘Suck it up. Welcome to being a woman in the workplace,’ ” Askini recalls. “ ‘If you want it to stop, start wearing cardigans and pants. This is how it’s going to be for the rest of your life.’ ”

The issue for many trans workers who complain about harassment is the risk of being fired for causing trouble, a dreadful prospect given the difficulties trans people face finding work due to discrimination.

“For marginalized people, that type of retaliation is so much more devastating,” Askini says.

A survivor of domestic violence, which, like sexual harassment and assault, is an issue that can be difficult to discuss in an LGBTQ community that’s wary of feeding negative stereotypes, Askini recounts fighting the good fight for her community by day, then going home to face her own struggles with her abusive partner.

It wore her down.

“I just didn’t have it in me to fight someone who was so close to me,” Askini says. “You have to pick your battles.

“I hope that this moment creates for men the kind of fear that women have always lived with. Being exposed about their abuses will have consequences for them. In some ways, that’s equity.”

BREE BLACK HORSE, a rising Native American attorney in Seattle, says her mother, Seminole artist Catherine Black Horse, once gave her unforgettable advice.

“ ‘Boys are time-wasters and dream-killers’ — those were her exact words,” Black Horse says when we meet to discuss the #MeToo movement’s importance to indigenous communities.

Coming from a nation of warriors, her stepdad, Blackfeet artist Terrance Guardipee, shared choice words of his own: “ ‘Don’t let anybody f--- with you, and if they do, call me.’ ”

With that, Black Horse, 28, has become a legal advocate for indigenous women at the law firm Galanda Broadman.

She believes there’s a crisis of domestic violence and sexual assault against women in Indian country.

Black Horse points out that while over two-thirds of violence against indigenous women happens at the hands of nonnative men, it has been difficult for tribal courts to prosecute nonnative people accused of assault on reservation land.

She’s pushing for greater attention to the disappearance and killing of indigenous women, including Muckleshoot tribal member Renee Davis, who was fatally shot by King County deputies in 2016. Davis was pregnant at the time.

She says it’s also important for indigenous communities to address the other sad fact that indigenous men are responsible for a significant portion of harassment and violence against native women.

Black Horse grew up in the Seattle area.

She’s been talking to her mom a lot about the traditional importance of women within families as well as in tribal ceremonial functions, and how that high esteem has been eroded by European influence. Guardipee, her stepdad, evokes this respect for powerful indigenous women in his distinctive paintings and ledger art.

Black Horse wants to retrieve what has been lost.

“I think it’s time for us to come together as a people and return to those traditional values,” she says. “I want us to remember who we are.”

Black Horse loves to pow wow, hunt and hike, her way of connecting to her heritage and history. But she also wants to do right by indigenous women in the here and now.

Black Horse led supporters of missing and murdered indigenous women during an event marking the anniversary of the Women’s March.

But calling out sexual misconduct isn’t easy for her or other indigenous women.

“You’re seen as tearing down one of your own,” she says. “There’s fear of retribution and being ostracized.”

Black Horse sees poetic justice in the possibility that from this point forward, men will be the ones who have to think twice about what they say and do.

She and her mom agree on something else:

“Men have gotten to run the show for the last 10,000 years. It’s our turn.”