TOUFAH JALLOW: Hello is the camera on my good side?
My name is Toufah Jallow, I am a [auto?] and an anti-rape activist. Um, I’m going to start with a prologue first in my book as a way of introducing who I am. It starts;
“It’s December 2020. I’m sitting in front of a computer screen with my friend and colleague Marian Volkman Brando watching the rough edit of a short documentary we’re producing together. For 25 minutes, clips of me participating in a 2014 Gambian scholarship competition are intercut with images of a man who ruled my country for over two decades, an all-powerful dictator whose squadron of death murdered and tortured under his orders. Clips of powerful men from other countries also appear. Harvey Weinstein, who uses his position in the film industry to intimidate women into having sex with him. Jeffrey Epstein, who trafficked teenage girls and young women. Mexico’s drug law, El Chapo who said young girls were his vitamins because breaking them gave him life. But need I add allegedly? It has been six years since I was declared the winner of a national competition sponsored by the president of my country. The scholarship to study anywhere in the world as my award. Instead, President Yahya Jammeh raped me.
I became a victim in Gambia, I was a fugitive in Senegal, then a refugee in Canada. At 19 I started life as a rape survivor, separated from my family, afraid I would never see them again, afraid they would suffer if I told anyone what was wrong with me. happened, should I add allegedly. As I was rebuilding my life 7,000 kilometers from the country, I grew up there, I fought against depression with my secrecy, with loneliness, then the dictator whose crimes forced me to flee was overthrown and driven out of The Gambia himself. I was able to return to reunite with my family and eventually tell my story first to human rights investigators and then to international media, such as the New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, CBC, and to my truth, uh, uh, to my country’s truth repair commissions. But people kept telling me, I should always say supposedly and I’ll jump over there. in the days, weeks and months since my first speaking out, others in The Gambia have also spoken up, sharing their stories used in the hashtag “I am Toufah” as a boost in this African country from West. And in our movement I too realized that the interest of the world in me was not because of who I am, but because of who my rapist is, a former president who rubbed shoulders with the most powerful people of the world. Ironically, the state the world has given him gives me more visibility.
And so I started a Toufah Foundation, which I now lead to use that visibility, to draw attention to survivors who are rapists and not presidents to redirect the power attached to his name, to fight for justice for all victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Because my life now spans two continents connecting Africa and not America. The campaigns we develop draw lessons and insights from feminists in the West and Africa, reflecting the strengths of women across the world in June 2015, Yahya Jammeh, President of The Gambia raped me. He was never charged, never convicted. And because of that, the world thinks I should use the word allegedly. I won’t, because he thought he would get away with it. Try to erase me. I thought I would never talk about it, that I would remain invisible. And guess what? We were both wrong for I am here shining like the sunrise from the Melanian coast. I am Toufah Jallow, and this is my story.
Now, this so-called word, I had to investigate myself for a very long time writing this book and finding myself. Um, I grew up in a small West African country in The Gambia and grew up in a predominantly Muslim household with 20 other siblings and more than four wives, three at a time sometimes, the idea of visibility is almost impossible. And if you’re a girl, it’s even harder to be visible. You are taught to be ashamed of your role and your body parts and the language around sex and sexuality in general. So when those very parts are violated, you don’t know the words for it. And today, although the walrus is asking what’s next, I’m at a place where I’m thinking about where we’re at in the conversation about rape, sexual assault, and harassment in general, and how we’re talking women’s bodies and autonomy.
And we all know the numbers at this point, the stats, the one in five, the two in ten, we know them. We have heard them over and over again. And I think we’re so much above the stats. And the reality is this, when you know all of these numbers and all of these statistics, are we going to continue to have conversations about rape in women’s bodies and just forever? Right? So when we talk about violence and rape, what I realize as a survivor who has worked in this area and worked with so many rape survivors and stood in the cemeteries of people who have lost their lives, because they were raped, worked with organizations in The Gambia or Canada. I realize that survivors and allies of survivors have a conversation from an emotional standpoint and everyone else has a legal standpoint. And that’s where the word supposedly comes from when a reporter talks to me. For example, in The Gambia, according to my president, it could cure HIV, AIDS and cancer. And when journalists around the world talk about this, as crazy as it sounds, they’re not saying the president claimed or allegedly killed AIDS. Apparently, almost never appears in any other concept concepts except for rape and violence. Where does this language come from? It stems from the idea that when it comes to women’s bodies and rape, in particular, we simply cannot be sure. For some reason, this is the most nuanced and misunderstood problem that happens to people’s bodies. Right? So what’s next for me in the conversation around the me too movement is, you know, Tarana Burke said something four years ago. She said: “The me too movement can either be a conversation starter or the conversation itself.”
And unfortunately where we are right now is that the me too movement was and has only become a conversation starter and not the conversation itself. We start the conversation. We go halfway, we come and go and let it be. Academics who have academic research to do on this issue. There are journalists who want to write about it. But I want to represent when I find myself in these rooms, I want to represent these victims and survivors who sometimes don’t have the language of rape. Where I’m from, when you say someone’s raping you, when you translate it directly into English, it means someone fell on me. Someone stole her thighs on my thighs. They have no language for the violence that has been drawn to their bodies.
So it’s a privilege to have a language for that. And when the whole conversation about sexual assault is immersed in English and colonial language and concepts, we forget about people who don’t have the language for it. People trying to figure out how to get away from cultural concepts that call them related. But it’s interesting that, whether you’re from West Africa and I lived in Canada, there’s this international concept of not believing women. To legalize the conversations around women and the violations that have been done to their bodies. So today I hope, and I ask you to get out of this first question you ask yourself. Why is it that when you hear that a woman has been raped, your first thought is to disbelieve rather than believe, then understand, maybe disbelieve. It’s always about not believing, then walking to believe it. How do we get to a place where we humanize the stories and experiences of survivors of sexual violence.
And that will mean that we will have to decolonize the concept of rape and violence on bodies, where sex and sexuality and expanding our concept of who is a woman or not a woman also comes into play. The next step is to move away conversations and start really putting yourself in that woman’s shoes. Which is to say, although, yeah, you know, it’s this excuse of, oh, sometimes, you know, women lie about violence. Yes. But isn’t it funny as a society, that when it comes to any other subject, we lean towards the majority, whether it’s our elections or any other decision we make. It’s only when it comes to violence that has been drawn to people that we lean towards to say ‘hey let’s look at the minority group here too’ which is great but why is it only selective ? And, and specific to that?
Um, I think the story of refugee and immigrant survivors is also part of the Canadian conversation. A lot of us watch TV shows, and often our experiences are probably seeing that person who was sex-trafficked on our special, uh, special Victims Unit episode. Or that person we know, or the movies we watch about people fleeing violence who were gang-raped during the war. How many of us have actually interacted with survivors of these things, interacting, living with us here in Canada.
And somehow we can have a middle ground where we can bridge the gap and we can have a diverse conversation and we can decentralize our notions of how we design violence. So statistics aside, science aside, and academics aside, can we please move on to the next phase where we humanize survival stories and then accept their realities for what they are.