99 Problems

Published on May 3rd, 2022 | by Tara Dorabji



My fourteen-year-old daughter calls me breathless after school. “I was at the front of the march, Mom. I was on the megaphone and everyone was cheering me on and following me and chanting.” I get chills from the joy and power in her voice. High schools in San Francisco and Oakland are walking out against sexual assault. The protests started at a nearby school. My daughters sent me photos from inside the girls’ bathroom, screenshots tagged and reshared on private stories, listing boys named as predators. The school put padlocks on the bathroom door and declared public accusations of perpetrators of sexual violence a form of bullying.

I watch the shaky cell phone footage of the high school protest—hundreds of students wearing red, a diversity of genders, drums beating behind the calls to action. A young woman holds the megaphone. “We are supposed to be getting taught about consent at SFUSD, but I haven’t been taught about consent in school.”

The protest is exquisite—the music, the stark red and black of their outfits. In some ways it is more beautiful than how my generation organized as young people, and in some ways it’s messier. They are protesting rape, sexual assault, violence, and harm. Harm. How easily this term is thrown around, embroiling legal systems and relationships. Is accusation of “harm” about repair, criminalizing, accountability, or creating more harm? Our culture is on spin cycle, holding separate definitions of justice. After decades of silence, famous man after famous man is forced to step down from positions of power due to sexual misconduct, assault, and rape. Social media becomes the court of public opinion.

Some young people are calling for anyone on the handwritten lists of the bathroom walls to be expelled without trials, investigations, warrants or juries. Expulsion based on a legacy of perpetrators getting off—what does that mean when it is your daughter on the mic or your son on the list? Or a young woman gets locked out of a padlocked bathroom being called a bully because nobody believes her. Or a young brown man finds his name is on the wall, and there are cries for his expulsion without process.

Growing up, I was never taught about consent culture or embracing my brownness—not in high school, college or my first workplaces. It was the school of hard knocks—try to avoid getting raped, dodge suggestive comments by teachers and bosses, ignore being sexualized by family friends, pass as white if you can, stay silent. Speak up and you will be stigmatized. Like Anita Hill.

At thirteen, I was violated in my own house. I was a late bloomer, barely buds of breasts, and it was inconceivable to me that a man would come onto me. He was 21, a family friend with access. I learned to avoid him. I told my twin daughters this story when they turned twelve. We sat around our kitchen table and I warned them that any man can be a perpetrator, even relatives. 

“Did you tell Grandma?” one of them asked.

“No.” I never did, not even as an adult. My mom talked about sex openly. “I just wanted it to go away. I guess I felt ashamed.” I didn’t want it to grow bigger. There would be no shelter in sharing what happened, just more blame and pain to dodge. I don’t like talking about it now. But when I tell my daughters it’s not to confront or heal from the past, it is in hopes that this doesn’t become their future.  

My freshman year of college, I remember two crimes taking place on campus. One was a hate crime; the other was a young woman raped while jogging in the forest. I went to the town hall about the hate crime, students spilled out the door. I didn’t see the empty room of the town hall about rape on campus, where reportedly less than five students showed up. I just stopped running for a bit.

The students in San Francisco are calling for a district wide walk out against sexual violence. They will march to district headquarters and then onto city hall. It is the Friday before finals.

“Here’s the plan, mom,” my daughter says. “We told all our teachers we will be out and got our assignments in advance.”

“What about finals?” I ask.

“It’s fine,” my other daughter chimes in. “It won’t matter. They aren’t doing anything. Besides, we have to go.”

“The absence won’t be excused,” I say.

“We know mom,” my daughter says, speaking as a unit for her twin sister, a habit from when they were two years old. My daughters are easily distinguishable, due to the faded dyed hair of the younger, bigger twin. It’s always been like that—one older, the other bigger. When they were three, they used to fight like crazy getting dressed in the morning. It took me months to figure out that the root of the argument was that one wanted to dress the same, so nobody could tell them apart.

“As long as it doesn’t impact your grades, it’s fine.” Then, I add offhandedly, “Roll your shoulders back.” An ongoing reminder to not slouch, for her to stand up to her full height under a too large sweatshirt covering a tight mid-drift and baggy jeans. The sexy, childish, skater girl style donned by hip hop icon Aaliyah when I was in high school in 1994.

Aaliyah’s signature fashion is still in effect—the oversized sweatshirt, revealing a midriff and stomach that gives way to baggy pants. Her look, which is reflected in my daughters as they set off organizing against sexual assault, was created by Aaliyah’s producer and then mentor, R. Kelly, who married her illegally when she was 15. He married her to provide consent for her abortion. He got her pregnant and made her a star.

After more than 20 years of exploits, R. Kelly was charged in 2021. Finally. Too late. And yet, in 2002, when his notorious sex tape surfaced, showing him having sex with a 14-year-old girl, the conversation was about him being nasty and getting off on peeing. No one cared that the film featured a minor—the same age as my daughters. Our popular cultural normalizes men in power having sex with little girls. Acceptable. Applauded. Success.

My twin daughters started high school in San Francisco after spending half of middle school at home due to Covid in TikTok training camp for activists steeped in call-out culture. (One of their first online victories was reserving tickets for a Trump rally, which Trump thought sold out, but found empty because twelve year olds across the country rallied against him.) They enter their teen years into a masked world, a culture both reinventing and remembering itself.

At times talking with my daughter feels like stoking the den of a moray eel. They call for mandatory expulsions based on accusation; I don’t know how to widen their lens to see abolition from the prison industrial complex as part of this conversation of justice where women of color have long remained silent against their assaulters. At least not at the dinner table. They know that Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black child from Chicago, who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Or more recently the exoneration of Anthony Broadwater who spent 16 years in jail for a rape that he didn’t commit.  In 1981 Alice Sebold, later a bestselling author and at that time a freshman in college, accused Broadwater of raping her, mistaking him in a line-up. He was convicted and unjustly sentenced and jailed. 

Most perspectives I attempt to offer has one of my children yell, “You are a rape apologist.” So, I don’t say much. We don’t engage in dialogue. Our dinner table feels like a live recording of TikTok rants. Their anger bubbles over.

How can I fault them for their rage?

My daughters entered the pandemic as girls and emerged as young women wearing ripped tights and horned black eyeliner. The same eyeliner I wore at their age. Converse are still trending and they both own the Doc Martens I coveted at their age. Some things haven’t changed.

I dyed my hair at 13 and my mom cried. I dyed my daughter’s hair when she was 14 and she almost cried—she yelled in fact, maybe cried, because her new look didn’t fit her vision. But my home dye job far surpassed the perm my mom gave me. When I offer to take my daughter to the salon to bleach her hair, she says, “I want you to do it.”

“Well, you can’t yell at me,” I respond. The older twin ends up dying the younger twin’s hair in the garage while I’m quarantined upstairs with Covid. Independence takes on new forms in this era.

photo by Mpho Mojapelo on Unsplash

The day before the district-wide walk out, my girls notify their teachers that they will be missing school. They check their assignments on the online portal teachers use. The older twin engages with teachers giving them feedback on the videos they are creating on consent culture. The younger twin plans to lead one of two pods from her high school to join the protest.

I sit on the burgundy couch in the family room, folding laundry when my daughter comes in. “I never realized how much work protests are to organize. I have a whole script to read on the bus and there is a list of approved chants.”

The protest is all youth-led. There are adult allies. Young people are told to not engage with the police, if there are any issues, they should go to the adult allies, who will hold the police line.

I will later watch the footage of my daughter walking through the halls of her high school at 9 a.m. with a bull horn, “It’s 9 o clock, time to stand up and walk out.” The school is quiet, at first no one comes out of their classroom. Her voice does not falter. She chants alone. And then there are hundreds of young people behind her.

The night before the protest, the Superintendent sends out an email to all parents with the subject line: Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment, defining what sexual harassment is, how to report it, and links to curriculum on consent. Then there is the section on legal limitations: the district does not have the legal authority to suspend or expel students for online or in person actions outside of the school day. I imagine if they did…if this demand played out and students could be suspended for what they say on social media, screen shots taken and forwarded. How this rule could be used in conservative towns. How many young people of color could be suspended or incarcerated?

The next day, tens of thousands of students march from SFUSD headquarters to city hall. My daughter is on the local news reel—one hand raised, the other holding a bullhorn. The crowd chants back to her. The students on the news say the administration is doing too little too late.

They are right. Investigations take weeks or months. Girls are forced to sit next to their perpetrators in the classroom without access to support or pathways to restorative justice.  

Still, it is progress. The email from the superintendent, while reactive and late, matters. Teachers and counselors spend their lunch hour creating new curriculum and resources on modeling consent. Defining sexual harassment as a reportable offense, instead of a cultural norm, matters.

Months after this protest, the older twin will say, “We won’t have BIPOC organizers silenced in this movement anymore.” The younger twin will go on to explain that the original demands were written by a white student.

“How does that change things?” I will ask.

“We want restorative justice as an option and counseling and mental health support and clear pathways for reporting.”

By pushing their radical demands to encompass abolition the young people force us to ask: How do we become the culture we so want to create? What conversations must we have as parents? What tools must schools bring? How do we end rape culture without engaging in cycles of harm? How do we hold racial and gender justice together?

It is so easy to destroy one and another. Yet most of us simply want to belong and be loved.

The night after the second protest, my daughter curls up on her bed, flipping through the photos of the event. “This matters,” I say. “You are making structural changes.”

Her voice is scratchy. My daughter’s nose is running. She curls into her bed and I hug her.

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About the Author

Tara Dorabji is a writer, radio journalist, mother, filmmaker and Vice President at The Center for Cultural Power, a home for artists and activists. She currently serves on the Advisory Boards for Color Congress and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. Her work is published in Al JazeeraThe Chicago QuarterlyHuizache, and acclaimed anthologies including: Good Girls Marry Doctors & All the Women in My Family Sing. She received a 2019 & 2021 Arts Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission for her writing and documentaries on Kashmir. Her first film, Here Still, was screened at over a dozen film festivals throughout Asia and the USA, and were an official selection of the Jaipur International Film Festival, the world’s largest competitive film festival. Awards include Asia’s Best Independent Documentary Film at the All Asia Independent Film Festival 2020, a Silver Medal at the 2020 Asia South East Short Film Festival, and a 2021 Semi-Finalist Award for the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.

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