“For most of history, anonymous was a woman.” Virginia Woolf
Dear Anonymous, By Mariane Pearl
Will your name ever be honored; will your story be told?
Shall the past make amends?
I see You behind all these young women, such old souls, who are standing for gender justice. They’re everywhere: Kinshasa, New York City, Bogota or Shanghai, restoring your memory and praising the unsung sacrifice that was your life. They’re your daughters, breaking free from the violence that has befell You, and every single woman in your lineage. They’re also shattering the omerta and defying impunity. Seemingly emerging from the earth itself, these women rise at un unprecedented pace and with a determination that cannot be detained. Of course, they still must put their lives (and yours by proxy) on the line, refusing to be married off as children, mutilated, deprived of land rights, or held back by hundreds of discriminative laws.
Have you ever heard of the unknown soldier?
He makes me think of You. In fact, he could be You, as he doesn’t have a name, a nationality or a say. In Paris where I grew up, the combatant (from the First World War) is buried beneath l’Arc de Triomphe, a shrine to patriotism shaped as a horseshoe that dominates the Champs Elysees avenue. He’s the token deceased soldier, as such he represents all those killed in conflict.
2 million victims in France only and one unidentified body.
History likes it short and palatable. Like the unknown soldier you have been made famous for representing everyone, if everyone is made of nobodies.
Anonymous… You’re that tiny silhouette that stays behind on the train platform disappearing from views and memories. You are the one left alone with your silent cry: war doesn’t breed winners, you want to say, it only breeds misery.
You didn’t get to write history either; you were brushed off the pages like the remains of a sharpened pencil. But You’ve embraced it, you’ve stomached it. You learned to walk in the dark while pointing to the light, which sounds like a metaphor for human triumph, provided that people behave like humans. Many of your perpetrators didn’t. But your daughters are now armed with your eternal flame, your spirit, one that neither guns nor fists have ever managed to extinguish. Even as you remained in the shadow of whatever generation you belonged to.
Today you’re still the one who stays behind to do the work, to feed, and to nurse. You dig holes in the ground to bury your pain. you break your back bending over the fields collecting café grains or sugar cane without pay. Doing laundry and homework and cooking and holding the fort of your domestic life. For the longest time, you have taught your daughters to be good second-class citizens, it was for their own safety. in 2018, 3.8 million women in Africa had their breasts ironed with old irons and rocks, so they won’t be attractive to the men that could rape them. And, if the rape happened anyway, they would be rejected by the community and lose their sanity to shame and blame.
I am left to wonder how History would look like if we had been stirring it your way.
You want to remind us: history doesn’t believe in individuals, it likes labels better, and icons, preferably dead ones. Sparse narratives, taglines with a few impactful words such as bravery and allegiance. A few nods at your sacrifice, calling on your heralded martyrdom to give you a reason to live but more importantly to give you a reason to die.
But You are everything that history doesn’t say, aren’t you? You are all the women in the unknown soldier’s short life, you are his mother and mine, your own mother dear reader, you are the sisters, daughters and aunts. You are every woman who’s ever reassured me that life goes on.
Remember when I “met” You in Uganda? It was in Kampala. Six flickering candles casted a soft light in the otherwise dark room. On the photograph, your face came and went, I imagined that this room used to be your sanctuary as you fed ten people three times a day. Or maybe it was your prison and you wanted to be an airplane pilot instead of a universal mother. I stood there watching bouncy shadows dance around your emaciated face, draped in your cloths of fading colors, you were not smiling on that picture. You were staring through it as if you wanted to break free from the photographs that had turned you into a mere memory, when what you had left was a legacy.
You had nine children and your husband was dead, he had brought the HIV to the house. Outside your humble hut, there was a sign advertising abstinence as a method to avoid getting infected. Everything you knew about men, having otherwise survived domestic violence, is that they don’t go for abstinence. You rose to the height of your woman grace when you decided that you wouldn’t buy the antiretroviral drug that could prolong your life. You were going to give this money to your eldest daughter Julian. You asked her on your deathbed to go to college and see to it that she becomes a doctor, an HIV specialist. Julian took the torch and kept it burning. Today she is one of the most famous force in Africa advocating for Uganda doctors to join a pan African initiative helping doctors remain in their country instead of moving abroad in search of better salaries.
Your name was Rose.
I think of you when I watch the news where you are conspicuous by your absence. In the latest delivery of world problems. At the time of writing, US President Donald Trump had turned completely mad advising people to drink bleach against the Coronavirus. Canada was banning assault-style weapons after its worst mass murder, 22 dead. US health agency’s top spokesperson Michael Caputo tweeted sexist and crude insinuations towards several women he called “dog faced.” Meanwhile the country’s presidential Democratic candidate was accused (and denied) assaulting a staff assistant. Domestic violence had risen by 38% average worldwide. The Coronavirus has killed millions, it was supposed to be the worst economic crisis since 1930’ and the Amazon was on fire.
It’s not like we don’t need you.
Have you seen it coming? After marching in Tahir Square and at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, women drive together in Saudi Arabia, demonstrate for equal rights everywhere, gather to take back the night* or gain jurisdiction over their own bodies. They come together as mothers to call for gun control. They also send each other supportive emails and contribute to their respective causes. It took a long time and enumerable unknown heroes, just like yourself, but here we are. And I have been thinking of You, praying that in your great wisdom You are looking over this emerging female leadership.
Dear anonymous, token women for all of us, no one knows what the future holds, you probably never knew either. The best we can do is stipulate, but I know that women are finally going to be free to shine and heal a wounded world with their little hands and their big hearts, they always have. Females taking the lead, stirring History also means that we finally are going to provide human answers to human problems, fight war with peace and ignorance with emotional intelligence.
That is the kind of History these so called ordinary women would write for us.
Dear Anonymous, I see You.