Soraya Chemaly is a writer and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. She is the Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and organizer of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition, both of which are involved in curbing online abuse, media and tech diversity, and expanding women’s freedom of expression.

In 2013, she won the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s (AEJMC)’s Donna Allen Award for Feminist Advocacy and the Secular Woman Feminist Activism Award. In 2014, she was named one of Elle Magazine’s 25 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter. She writes and speaks regularly about gender, media, tech, education, women’s rights, sexual violence and free speech.

Her latest book Rage Becomes Her explores the power of women’s anger. ElsaMarie DSilva interviews Soraya Chemaly:

Elsa: The #MeToo movement has opened a space for discussion on various aspects of gender related matters – equality, equity, sexual violence, misogyny in public, marital rape and consent amongst others. Your book Rage Becomes Her is very timely in this context. Why did you choose to focus on Rage as an emotion and why now?

Soraya: I’d been writing about these issues for many years, but after Brexit and the 2016 presidential election it seems fitting to look at women’s lives through the filter of anger. Specifically, I was interested in examining how anger is socially constructed – who has the right to rage, for example, in self-defense. Certainly not women. Depending on the country and culture you live in, some women have more ability to use anger than others, but, almost everywhere, anger is linked to masculinity and is thought of as the moral property of men. Angry men are citizens, but angry women are “crazy,” “overemotional,” and “dangerous.”

Elsa: You give several examples from your own life where anger was suppressed and ignored. You mention self surveillance. Why is it important for women to think about “anger”? How does it matter?

Soraya: Self-surveillance comes up in the book in the context of sexual objectification and self-objectification, both of which tend to disable women’s anger instincts. For example, women are pervasively objectified in our cultures – which means we tend to see women in parts instead of as whole people. When we internalize that perspective we have difficulty feeling what our bodies are telling us. In terms of anger, women with high levels of self-surveillance – meaning they are constantly aware of how they look, what the position of their heads, arms, legs, bodies are in, etc. – have the most difficulty recognizing the physiological signs of anger, an accelerated heartbeat for example. Self-objectification, self-surveillance are also tied to what is called “stereotype threat” – when we are aware of a stereotype, for example, “girls aren’t good at math”, we expend a great deal of mental energy fighting it, which then, ironically, often means we fulfil the stereotype because our cognition is disrupted. It’s important to understand these dynamics and to recognize our anger as anger because it is a signal emotion. It tells us something is wrong and needs to change.

Elsa: In the book, you say, “Anger is a mediator between the perception of injustice and the intensity of pain”. Can you please elaborate?

Soraya: Studies indicate that scoring high on a scale of perceived injustice is linked to reports of greater pain, depression and disabilities. Anger, and anger inhibition, have been found to be “significantly correlated” with a person’s sense of with perceived injustice and self-reported disability. Anger, research suggests, is the lens through which perceived injustice affects a person’s pain intensity. There are several interesting lines of inquiry currently examining how specific interventions into how anger is managed and responded to can reduce the physical effects of perceived injustice, pain intensity and depression

Elsa: How much anger is too much anger? Strong is the new pretty, yet Anger continues to make us “ugly”. We would love your views on Serena’s rage at the US Open Final.

Soraya: I think that it’s easy to decontextualize Serena Williams’ rage from the decades of sexism and racism that she has fought. The most important fact about the entire episode might be that for calling the umpire “a thief” she was levied the highest ever find in US Open history for “verbal abuse.” The absurdity of this, given the “charming” “bad boy” behaviours of so many men over the years – men who have behaved in far more egregious ways, using far more egregious language – is clear. She is subject to the double whammy of racial and gender bias constantly and knows exactly how stereotypes about “angry black women” are weaponsized. As she said after the episode, “Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”

Elsa: How do we get more men and boys to understand our anger? We use accurate language, share our stories, and, virtually important, hold them accountable – for listening, talking and responding with respect. We teach boys to do that when they are young, so they don’t have to unlearn entitlements – like trivializing what women are saying.

Soraya: What are the strategies do you suggest to deal with anger? At the end of the book, I describe 10 steps to what I call “anger competence.” The include not only thinking about one’s own anger, but the anger of other women as well. I talk about the use of language and tone policing other women, building strong and diverse communities and using your strengths to find power, creativity and change – in personal, professional nad political life – in anger.

Elsa: This book truly has resonated with a lot of women globally. It gives vocabulary to our experiences. What’s next for you?

Soraya: SCHOOLS. Progressives need to do something that is tacitly contrary to our sensibilities – shape institutions. So much of the work we do in the future depends on early childhood socialization and if we don’t start there we are losing valuable time and energy.

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