June 22nd, 2021 | Uplift, a series: Conversations to raise awareness, lift voices, inspire
Soraya Chemaly is an award-winning author and activist. She’s the former Executive Director of The Representation Project and director and co-founder of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, where she focused on increasing women’s civic and political participation. In 2018, Soraya published Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, a topic she also covered in November that same year in her TED Talk, where she counters the socialization of women and girls to suppress their own anger and promotes it as a strength. Her work as a writer, speaker, and activist is featured broadly across media and academic research.
Soraya has won numerous awards, including the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s (AEJMC)’s Award for Feminist Advocacy, the Secular Woman Activism Award, the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press’s Women and Media Award, and the Feminist Press’ Feminist Power Award. And Elle Magazine, in 2014, named Soraya among the 25 Inspiring Women to Follow in social media.
Recently, we caught up with Soraya for an interview.
Soraya, thank you so much for joining us for this Uplift series interview. In 2019, you took part in a panel at ICRW on technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV), which is the use of tech to harass, defame, or exploit. Now, you’ve done a lot of work to disrupt the silencing of women on- and off-line and to ensure full civic and political participation and freedom of expression. But online GBV is so pervasive and can be relentless. Given that, have you seen breakthroughs in your work?
SORAYA: Yes, I think I have seen a lot of change happening in the last four or five years. It seems that more people and institutions are understanding the connection between the harassment of women – both online and off, but online in particular – as really a reflection of degradations of our political lives and democracy instead of, as previously, problems that women needed to take care of privately – the way we’re generally “supposed” to take care of violence that we encounter in homes or on the streets. So, I think I’m a little hopeful about that. I do think it’s a good change.
You talk in your book, Rage Becomes Her, and also in your TED Talk about the important role anger plays in shifting power dynamics and tipping the scales on gender inequality. In Rage Becomes Her, you say, “the truth is that anger isn’t what gets in our way – it is our way. All we have to do is own it.” That is a powerful statement, but how does a woman own it when, from a very early age, she has been taught to contain it, to extinguish it? That is not an easy shift to make.
SORAYA: It’s not an easy shift at all, and I don’t want to imply that it is. But I do think it’s an important shift. But first, for women, as individuals, to admit – even at the most basic level – that they are angry and use the words to label those emotions so that they can then think about what to do next. So, I want to be careful about saying this isn’t about the violent expression of rage because you know we have these images of rage – really, frankly very masculinized in terms of explosive, destructive rage – but that’s also dysfunctional anger. That’s not what I mean. What I’m trying to describe is women who might say they’re tired or frustrated. We learned to minimize this emotion of anger, but to not do that anymore, to not sublimate it or divert it or let it suffuse their bodies in ways that are unhealthy. Rather say, ‘You know what? I’m angry, and I have the right to share this with the people around me who theoretically care for me and love me,’ and see what happens.
“Anger,” you write, “is an assertion of rights and worth. It is communication, equality, and knowledge. It is intimacy, acceptance, fearlessness, embodiment, revolt, and reconciliation.” Above all, you say, it is “a gift to yourself and the world that is yours.” This is a far more nuanced look at anger, one that runs counter to what many of us learn growing up, where anger, sadness, joy, disgust, envy exist almost independently – as if the light goes off for one when another goes on. You talk about how anger is actually more integrated in the fibers of our being and in all we do – and, taking it a step further, are essential. Soraya, when did you start to see your anger as a gift and as a powerful tool?
SORAYA: That’s such a great question. Probably not until my mid-forties. I was a person who, probably earlier in life, would have easily said, “No, I’m not angry at all. I don’t get angry.” Anger was really disparaged in my childhood and in our culture. But then, I really felt quite isolated, which is actually kind of ironic because we learn that anger is what causes separation and isolation because it threatens to break relationships – and women are not supposed to do that.