On the night of May 25, 2014, I curled up in bed and waited to die.
My Twitter mentions were bursting with reasons why I should. I was a man-hater. I was a rabid feminist. I was capitalizing on a tragedy. I was a terrorist in sheep’s clothing. I was a hypocrite. There were many that had creatively utilized a 140-character limit to fantasize about particularly creative ends for me.
What I’d asked for.
What I deserved to have done to me.
What they wanted to do to me.
I was a Muslim woman who had dared to start a viral hashtag that laid out the fears women faced – while men shamed and accused them of generalizing against an entire gender for the sins of a perceived few.
I was the creator of #YesAllWomen, and in that moment, I had no idea what the morning would bring me.
And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wake up and see.
“#YesAllWomen is trending. Thank you so much, everyone. Your feelings are valid. Our feelings are valid.”
@gildedspine, May 24, 2014 – 2:58 P.M.
On the afternoon of May twenty-fourth, a young man named Eliot Rodger armed his male entitlement with a weapon and left several innocents to await identification in body bags.
On the same afternoon, a serial rapist was let out on parole – against the advice of his own psychiatrists, in the face of united protests and fears and dread – into a small Californian town. One of the women interviewed in response was herself a rape survivor. She was shuddering. She was crying.
When I read her words, I cried, too.
And I was angry.
I know the realities of the world I live in. As a Muslim woman, as a woman of color – as a woman in general. Our bodies are hated – even as they are coveted and leered after and broken by greedy, grasping, unworthy hands. We are told to dress up, dress down, we deserve it, we should smile, that was a compliment, don’t frown at me, don’t block me, are you listening to me?
Eliot Rodger hated rejection. He gave a voice, a face, to hundreds of thousands of men online who keep searches open with certain trigger words prepared – “Islamophobia, feminist, woman, girl” – so they can toss lit grenades into the inboxes and Twitter mentions of women who openly use their voices to discuss the truths those men would rather not hear. He was a folk hero to the inhabitants of the mythical friend zone. They praised his name, even as women in my feed and offline grieved over another death, another bereaved family, another senseless loss – another reason for women everywhere to hold their keys tightly in their fists, knuckle mace or worry about walking home late at night.
There are trolls under the bridge the world over – and there’s no sound they hate more than the sound of a woman’s feet skipping right over the limiting walls they’ve tried to impose on her and the pools of self-hatred they’ve tried to drown her in.
“It appears that #YesAllWomen was started by @gildedspine. Learn more about how it started with this post…”
@KerryWashington, May 24, 2014
On the same afternoon Eliot Rodger prepared to take his last ride, I was seated cross-legged in the women’s section of a local masjid.
I was idly balancing my laptop on my knees, in an odd imitation of the little girls devoutly grasping their Qur’ans and reciting their lessons, overlapping one another. I was browsing my Twitter feed, which had grown larger and richer over the past few months – along with my discovery and awareness of online spaces as a place to find my people, like-minded women and activists, and enjoying outspoken discussions on life and discrimination and diversity and everything in between.
I was favoriting every tweet I could find that stood in defiance to the growing wave of male denial – “Not All Men.”
“Not all men hurt women like Eliot.”
“Not all men go that far.”
“Not all men can be patient with your uptight rejection, though.”
“Not all men can sit tight and smile while you go for the beta males.”
I was sick to my stomach. I was still angry.
But I wasn’t alone. I was never alone. I was not the only one who felt this way.
And I knew that, if we had a shared space, just the way #AliceinArabia, #NotYourStockMuslim, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks had taught me – our own space to breathe, to vent, to empathize – we could raise our voices together and counter the waves that tried to drown them. One hashtag – several hashtags – and the raised voices behind it had changed the world. It was one small step, but it had touched on a hunger within me that I hadn’t known existed.
As a Muslim woman, and a woman of color, I was constantly bruised by the targeted javelins of stereotypes and casual hatred. Here, in this online space, I was able to connect with voices that felt the same frustrations, that shared my need to challenge the narrative and add our own, that were able to topple yet another obstacle to our daily lives and our individuality.
My voice had power and potential. It could be raised. It could be heard.
As soon as I was home, on a steady Wi-Fi signal and with my nerves still jangling with the need to do something, say something, I opened up a new dialogue box.
And I tweeted three friends.
Life as I knew it split into two paths: the one where I did send that tweet, and the one where I closed my traitorous mouth and didn’t.
Within two hours, #YesAllWomen was trending nationally. I had been mentioned by username and promoted by actress Kerry Washington. It had begun.
“When @gildedspine started #yesallwomen, it proved all that was great and wonderful in social media. And after? Well.”
@kellybarnhill, August 13, 2014 – 7:28 A.M.
The night of the twenty-sixth, I was having an anxiety attack. I couldn’t eat. Every breath seemed like a shallow blade sliding between my ribs. I wrapped my arms around my stomach like a weak rivet, a last, desperate attempt to preserve a porcelain plate – and I fired off DMs to my friend Nicole Brinkley as she and I attempted to eradicate any evidence of my real name and existence online.
Hours later, I would officially lock my account, and attempt to step back from a creation that had burst out of my control. I would leave the safe space I had tried to create for several months. I would be condemned by women who felt that I wasn’t brave enough, that I hadn’t spoken enough, that I had denied them further use of my voice when they needed it for announcing marches and conferences (events where the women who had needed that space the most would not be invited or considered). I was learning just what it meant to be Internet famous. And I didn’t know how much more I could take of it.
I told my mother that evening, and her instant concern – for me, for our family, for our health and safety in the face of this unknown, sudden storm – made me feel worse. I had been selfish, to speak up without thinking of the consequences, even surrounded by brave feminists from marginalized backgrounds who bore such attacks and assaults every single day.
I hadn’t thought of my family. I hadn’t thought of what would happen if this continued on, and on, for several days.
Which it did.
“The hashtag I created has not been a safe place for my voice since the first twenty-four hours since I tossed it out. #YesAllWomen”
@gildedspine, August 12, 2014 – 4:43 P.M.
On the evening of May twenty-fourth, I did not take #YesAllWomen trending as my accomplishment.
But I was proud. I was proud of being a conduit for raised voices. I was proud for being one of them, for being able to grieve and be angry and be strong and speak about my fears and face them. I would be accused, over the next few weeks, of planting a seed of division by speaking particularly on the fears and isolation of women of color – by making it known that I was a woman of color.
I would see firsthand the division and inequalities of mainstream feminism: of how we speak against our being consumed – and yet, if we are marginalized, are expected to turn over our voices and our projects to the “cause”, to be presented as the successful rescue cases of American feminism and not as individual activists in our own right. How we can unite for a few hours in the name of women’s rights, and then fall to piece mere hours later when some of us speak about experiences that others cannot claim as their own.
It is a scenario that continues to be repeated, and one that predates #YesAllWomen:
A woman of color creates a trending hashtag.
A woman of color is then bullied, harassed and threatened for all sides for creating said trending hashtag. (And, as always, it should be noted that a woman of color online is privy to abuse from both men and women.)
A woman of color must watch as her work is co-opted, misinterpreted, used for profit, and ultimately attributed to others.
It’s a daily problem. It’s a problem that no one wants to admit to – because that would mean that they’d lose their place in the line to scavenge, consume and appropriate. #YesAllWomen was a particularly tempting fruit, because it invited all voices, and made the mistake of assuming that the inclusion of all would mean the exclusion of none. It was ripe for the taking, and for the lines of prejudice and saviorism to be drawn.
I was locked down, and out, two days after #YesAllWomen first started trending. I watched from a distance as #YesAllWhiteWomen trended for a day, as women of color vented about their constant online abuse, of being used and abused and heckled by men and women alike and then isolated from a hashtag that was meant to speak for all women.
I would speak out, months after #YesAllWomen had finally stopped trending and was being hauled over the coals by trolls and TERFs, to condemn an account masquerading as me and culling money from stolen tweets and “official T-shirts”, to deny claims being made in my name and taking advantage of my need for privacy and safety in the name of monetary gain and attention.
Not everything about #YesAllWomen makes me proud. I am particularly bitter, and disappointed, that it did not live up to its name and its promise. As a marginalized woman, even I could not provide a safe space for more than a few hours for others like me.
But for those few hours, I loved what it was and could be.
On the evening of May twenty-fourth, I learned that you didn’t have to be a troll to harm.
A male reporter from the Wall Street Journal reached out to me – “Age/Location/Real Name?” Even after I declined with a short, polite explanation about how the space in my mentions were shrinking, that kind, heartfelt thanks were overpowered by suggestions on how I should kill myself, he pressured me to reveal that information. Another male reporter found my personal blog and followed it, just to see what I was “up to.” After an hour of begging him to stop invading my personal space, I ended up blocking him.
I learned that fame, perceived from the outside, can change recognized names and friends into strangers. An author I knew and mutually followed deemed me a man hater and claimed that she always knew I had the potential to be one.
“She’s just so angry, you know?” she tweeted.
A day or so later, when #YesAllWomen was still trending, she was drawn into a conversation in which two friends were trying to offer me comfort. She now considered #YesAllWomen an “important movement” and urged me not to lock down for the sake of the other women speaking. I unfollowed her.
A good friend sent me a direct message before I would lock down, surprised because she’d been offline and hadn’t realized exactly what was happening. She wanted me to claim the hashtag under my real name and take credit before someone else did.
I explained to her that I’d closed my laptop because of nausea and worry, only to then open my phone’s browser two minutes later for the sake of compulsion – garnering only more nausea and worry. Concerned, she tweeted a general request to leave me alone. The very first response, seconds after the tweet was published, was a rape threat.
She helped me tidy up my personal details as best as she could on her end.
On a night a few months ago, I was asked for advice on how to survive your hashtag accidentally trending.
I do not pride myself on being strong. I remember nights when I stared in the mirror, opened my lips – and pinched them shut. I remember nights of self-condemnation, of depressive spirals downward, of fingering my own dark eyelids and drawn cheeks and wondering if I was a coward to have helped so many speak out, only to spend days afterward attempting to dismantle my own creation. I remember breaking down in tears over an e-mail from an author and mentor who told me she didn’t want to see me back online until it was safe for me, who told me that she loved me and believed in me and that I was doing the right thing.
You do dwell on that a lot, after the death threats start pouring in. Was it the right thing to do, to give voice to an open, constant wound? Was it the right thing to set your boundaries, to shrink away from interviews and lock down your own account?
I regret the death threats. I regret the media attention. I regret the pain and the tears, and the hatred I held for myself for so many months afterward. But I do not regret giving women a place to speak and be heard and acknowledged on a worldwide scale.
As a woman I terrify merely by existing, and by learning to take pride in my existence. There are those who want to suppress my existence, and my voice, and what I do to amplify the voices of others. That is sad, but their prerogative. I will focus on my own choices.
I am not the best person to give advice on how to survive. One step at a time. Perhaps it is surviving when you can make yourself eat a plate of rice without vomiting it back up. Perhaps it is surviving when you can go to a conference days later and not cringe when you are identified by your Twitter username, when you can manage to hug a friend and not break down when she asks you how you feel today.
Sometimes I think back on the girl who curled up and gripped her sheets in her tight fists, who squeezed her eyes shut and let the tears curve down her cheeks. I want to stroke her hair and kiss her brow. I want to tell her that I know, I know, it will get better.
We are here. We are speaking.
I am here. This is my mouth. This is my voice.
You cannot silence me.
Kaye M. is an English major and MLIS hopeful, and a former member of the We Need Diverse Books campaign team. When she is not advocating diversity and feminism online, she is hard at work on adding her voice to the growing list of authors within the Muslim YA canon and obsessing over tea, magical girls, Studio Ghibli, and lip colors.