I wish I knew how

This post is by Neemah Ahamed (Doctoral Researcher at Sussex Law School). Following on from her previous post ‘What do they call me?’, here the meaning of justice for women of colour who’ve experienced gendered violence is explored in conversation with analysis of Nina Simone’s performances of two songs.

Nina Simone in 1964 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Nina Simone’s rendition of the song, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, is a yearning for justice and respect against deliberate misunderstanding, including of herself. It is a haunting melody and its lyrics, which invoke a sense of vulnerability resonate because they speak to that part of us which wants to be understood. It may remind some of us dealing with the shadows of trauma of gendered abuse that more than anything else we want justice and what it means in the context of our lived experiences to be heard. For women of colour who’ve experienced gendered violence, they are often afraid of speaking out about what justice means to them. Cultural and family values may influence them into believing that they may be partially to blame for acts of abuse committed against them. Religious leaders sometimes prevent women from speaking out by coercing them into believing that it is morally wrong to do so based on scriptures and religious teachings. In this way women are imprisoned in a ‘cage of male domination’. The lyrics remind us to acknowledge their experiences and remember, they are ‘human’, and it is important to ask what justice means to them.  

The problem with the meaning of justice is that it has been defined on behalf of, not by, the individuals that seek it. Only a few studies have been carried out about what justice means to victim-survivors of colour. According to McGlynn and Westmarland, women want acknowledgement that they have been harmed and victimised. McGlynn and Westmarland propose a multifaceted way of thinking of justice, that is, through a kaleidoscope. This is because it is enables justice to be seen as a ‘continually shifting pattern, constantly refracted through new circumstances and understandings’. They argue justice is pluralistic, a lived, on-going, evolving process rather than an end result. Through this lens, justice can be seen as consequences, recognition, dignity, prevention and connectiveness. It embodies Simone’s lyrics of being respected as a ‘human’ and to be understood for who you are and what you have lived through. Gangoli et al is the first study that focuses specifically on women of colour’s notion of justice and, for them, there are three types of justice. Firstly, justice can be obtained through the legal system through which perpetrators must suffer meaningful consequences for their actions. Aside from the fact that this includes punishment and imprisonment, there is little evidence of what more victim-survivors conceptualise should be done. Secondly, victim-survivors see justice as something that takes place when their communities recognise their suffering by acknowledging the harm inflicted by their perpetrators. They feel isolated because they are ashamed to share their experiences with their family and unable to express what justice means to them. They want empathy; they want their truth to be heard. They want their communities and families to play a role in reforming gender roles and inequalities because, to them, these contribute to gender based violence. Thirdly, justice is conceptualised in terms of human rights and freedoms.

Simone’s powerful melancholic rendition of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ speaks to identity and individualism and the yearning to ‘break’ free from ‘chains’ that hold us. Listened to in this context, it has resonances of the longing for personal freedom for victim-survivors who have been subjected to coercive control by their families. In Joel Gold’s film Nina, Simone attempts to answer a question posed by an interviewer about what freedom means to her. Part of her response was ‘no fear’. Aside from language barriers and insecure immigration status, Gangoli et al further argue victim-survivors are unable to access justice or explain what justice means to them because they are threatened with domestic abuse and violence. Fear holds them back. In the words of Audre Lorde, we must recognise that ‘where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognise our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.’

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