Conversation With Documentarian Aishah Shahidah Simmons — Sarah-Jane Stratford

Photo credit: Julie Yarbrough


Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s documentary about rape, NO!, was a project she conceived as being primarily aimed toward Black women, and these are the women who talk openly about their experience in the film. To Ms. Simmons’ surprise, the film has been used as a tool to open up discussion about rape in such unexpected places as Guam, Croatia, and Hungary. “The universality of sexual assault transcends color,” she points out. While Ms. Simmons, who is a survivor of both incest and rape, is pleased to have created a work that has so much resonance, it is also frustrating that a film first screened in 2006 continues to be so necessary. Nonetheless, the fact that the film sparks such deep responses and fruitful conversation is cause for great encouragement. Speaking out is one of the most powerful weapons to fight sexual assault.


NO! features a number of women giving testimony and thus breaking their silence on their personal experience of rape. As Ms. Simmons notes, this is critical because “rapists bank on silence and shame.” Challenging though it is to be out and visible, more and more women realize it is necessary, both for their own healing and as a way of breaking down the wall of shame.


Despite improvements in police and media response, there is still a societal attitude that treats rape as the only crime where a victim’s behavior is a factor in whether it is, in fact, deemed a crime. As Ms. Simmons says, “I could leave my laptop on a table in Starbucks while I’m at the counter and someone could steal it – that would definitely be stupid of me, but it won’t stop authorities from trying to track it down. When it comes to sexual assault, however, the victim is still thoroughly vetted for possible complicity before a serious investigation gets underway.”


Ms. Simmons explains that, despite the regular horror stories such as the gang rape in India and cases such as Steubenville, rape is no more prevalent than it’s ever been. The difference is that more women are refusing to be silent. This does raise the risk of backlash, which we see more immediately, thanks to social media.


“It is detrimental to survivors whose lives are plastered on social media,” says Ms. Simmons. “I get attacked too, and it’s hard, but at least I have tools, which include therapy and vipassana meditation, to handle it. A 15-year-old girl who’s already been victimized probably won’t have those or other useful tools to cope with the attacks.” Social media can castigate and malign a victim, which is why one major point Ms. Simmons makes when talking about NO! to young people is that they have to think about how words can have impact.


Part of the problem is a lack of understanding about language. Some people don’t have a real understanding of what rape is.


“I’ve heard girls say, ‘I’d let him rape me,’” says Ms. Simmons. Likewise, some boys and men have complained that NO! “doesn’t leave room for seduction.” Too many men are not clear on the difference between seduction and coercion, a problem that NO! attempts to rectify. “It’s generally understood that for every minute a rape lasts, that will require at least one year of healing, if they are in  therapy. When audiences hear that, and witness these survivors’ testimonies, they start to understand just what the words mean.”


Asked what she thinks is at the root of what’s called the current “rape culture,” Ms. Simmons says rape remains a weapon of patriarchy, an attempt to “put women in their place. There is a feeling that the traditional male power structure is slipping away and the immediate response to any perceived uprising is always to squash it. There is also still an idea that it’s acceptable to denigrate women, reducing them to receptacles rather than people, an idea unfortunately perpetuated in the culture and media. The difference between now and a few decades ago is that women are increasingly not silent about the violence perpetuated against them – be it sexual assault or a battering by a partner.”


One issue NO! explores that gets very little traction in the wider discussion of rape is that rape is also a weapon of homophobia.  “There is an attitude expressed by some men that says, ‘I’m gonna rape her straight,’” says Ms. Simmons. One survivor in the film, Queen, talks about the threat of her assault and how it came from an attitude of “rape isn’t rape if it’s to teach black lesbians a lesson.” This is especially the case if a woman is masculine identified. “When it comes to lesbians,” says Ms. Simmons, “the insistence that she is put in her place is particularly strong. She has to be shown that she is not a man. She is not a peer. She is a woman and thus a receptacle for whatever a man wants from her.”


This attitude extends toward hatred of gay men as well. The denigration of the feminine locates a gay man as being like a woman and thus worthy of condescension and even violence.


“So much of it is a desire to go back to the way things were,” says Ms. Simmons. “A time when gay people weren’t visible, women kept quiet, and all people of color knew their rightful place in society. Now the anger and fear of change as more groups push for equality gets played out on women’s bodies.”


Despite increasing gains in civil rights and equality across the spectrum, there is still some discomfort with language and how one is perceived. When calling out a racist act, a person of color might preface remarks with an apology, an insistence that they’re “not playing the ‘race card.’” Likewise, Ms. Simmons has observed repeatedly in her women’s studies classes at Temple University and in Q&A sessions after screenings of NO! that young women are quick to qualify their thoughts with the classic, “I’m not a feminist, but…” before continuing on to make a feminist statement.  When Ms. Simmons points out that they are speaking strong feminist language, they persist in believing that it’s a “bad word,” and not one with which they wish to be associated.


“The media plays a strong role in this,” says Ms. Simmons. “It determines what we think. It’s not just Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and it’s not just the language of hip-hop, though that’s all easy to blame. It’s rampant in mainstream media too. We need to recognize that and push back.”


While policy can play an important role – the passage of the Violence Against Women Act was a strong step, although the fact that it was controversial is disheartening – Ms. Simmons notes that the real progress is found in organizations dedicated to changing behavior and helping to create a healthier dialogue. Groups such as Men Stopping Violence, Men Can Stop Rape, Black Women’s Blueprint, and Project Stop Now among many others, are making strides in pushing back against the culture of violence. Ms. Simmons is particularly pleased to see such groups and offices dedicated to women’s well-being on the campuses of the historically black colleges and universities, which have been slow to acknowledge the need.


She’s also encouraged by some of the responses young men have to NO! When she screened the film for the Philadelphia Student Union, many young men talked about how they have been complicit in violence, simply by not speaking out when something inappropriate was said or done, because they feared being attacked in kind. The film helps everyone see how important it is to break the cycle of silence.


“I wanted to make women feel empowered after viewing the film,” says Ms. Simmons of her impetus in making NO! “I wanted them to understand that life doesn’t have to stop if you’ve been assaulted. They can get involved in the movement to stop violence, and men must as well. I want women to feel strong enough to seek help – therapy can be stigmatized among people of color, but it’s important and I believe should be non-negotiable. Above all, I want everyone to understand that the shame is not on the victim, but on the perpetrator.”



—You can read more about Aishah Shahidah Simmons and NO!, as well as order copies, at Paradigm Shift NYC will also alert readers to local screenings.

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