Sultana Khan

Sultana Khan

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Women Are Seizing Their Power — Is 2017 The Beginning of Herstory?

Sultana Khan“I honestly don’t even know.” Several weeks ago, in the wake of the Weinstein maelstrom, I posed a question to my friend Olivia, “What will the world look like when women seize their power?” We were sitting in her kitchen, having tucked away a bottle or three of wine, impatiently waiting for a Moroccan-inspired chicken dish to finish cooking while the smell of cinnamon and roasting apricots surrounded us. The silence of our unknowing drew long as we contemplated the enormity of the question.

“Themyscira,” I semi-jokingly replied, referring to the paradisiacal island home of Wonder Woman, where women thrive and develop rippling muscles without the male gaze shaming them into wondering if their bodies are too masculine. I laughed for a moment, but unfortunately, my reply served as a reminder of last year’s United Nations fuck up, when, apparently facing a dearth of real-life candidates, the organization appointed Wonder Woman an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.

Not long after, Wonder Woman was stripped of the title, thanks to a petition that amassed more than 44,000 signatures calling for a non-fiction ambassador whose brand wasn’t that of an “overtly sexualized image,” which was also “culturally insensitive in many parts of the world.”  It’s hard to determine which of these diametrically opposed viewpoints took precedence in the public arena’s outrage — if Wonder Woman was a degrading representation of the objectification of women, actually objectifying her by claiming her clothing too sexy for public consumption feels almost hysteria-inducing.

As we discussed the reality of a more equitable world, our fear and fury laboring under the weight of a hashtag that had inundated our timelines, it felt almost impossible to believe that time would ever come.

This is what it means to be a woman in America in 2017. An America where a female friend and I could be sitting in her kitchen, discussing the tortuous path to a world where women’s bodies aren’t commodified, legislated, raped, or murdered, only to discover the very notion is so far out of the realm of believability that we can only stare blankly at one another in depressed, unsurprised silence.


If this sounds like a hyperbole — or “female hysteria” if you’re an asshole — it might also surprise you to know that in 2015, according to an annual report from the Violence Policy Center, Maine was ranked ninth in the nation for the per capita rate at which men murdered women.

Statistically, nearly half of Maine’s of homicides are linked to domestic violence. While the number of murders in Maine remain relatively low, that’s 20 percent higher than the national average, according to data from the Department of Justice.

This might account for some of the urgency found in the language of last year’s biennial report, On the Path to Prevention, from the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, a statutorily mandated entity formed in the late nineties and housed under the Office of the Attorney General. The position is currently held by Janet Mills, who wrote the foreword and recently successfully sought permanent funding for a Panel Coordinator position. On the Path to Prevention chronicles the Panel’s review of 16 cases in which the homicide was linked to domestic violence, and investigates the factors surrounding the case that escalated the violence into murder.

The report’s grisly details dissect the relationships between perpetrator (two of whom were female, fourteen of whom were male) and victim, whose ages ranged from 10 weeks to 81 years old, as well as the factors leading up to the homicide. It is easy to see how the Panel’s mission — which is to “engage in collaborative, multidisciplinary case reviews of domestic abuse-related homicides for the purpose of developing recommendations for state and local government and other public and private entities in order to improve coordinated community responses to protect people from domestic abuse” — necessitates the level of detail found in the report, but it’s a viscerally upsetting read nonetheless.Maine isn’t the only state to employ this method for developing recommendations — Fatality Review Panels can be found throughout the country — but the Maine Panel, comprised of 21 women and four men, is one of the leading panels in the U.S., so much so that they were invited to present at the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative Conference on their methodology and processes.

This could be a contributing factor as to why Maine did not appear on the top 10 states of the Violence Policy Center’s 2015 or 2016 reports.


(It's worth noting that Mills's foreward focuses not on the dead women murdered by their male partners or former partners who comprise nine victims in the 16 cases reviewed, but rather the children who are adversely affected by the violence experienced in their homes. "A child without a safe and loving home is a child adrift, left insecure for life." Rather than giving dignity to the women as multidimensional beings, the Attorney General laments the loss of a child's mother — no woman is mourned simply for herself.


I checked previous reports, including 2014’s Building Bridges Towards Safety and Accountability to End Domestic Violence, as well as reports from 2010, 2008, 2006, and 2004, some of which were written by Mill’s predecessor, former Attorney General G. Steven Rowe, and not a single foreword contained the word “women.”

In part, this is due to the reports’ focus on all manner of domestic violence, which is separated into two categories, intrafamilial homicide and intimate partner homicide. It’s a deliberate choice to convey that domestic violence is not only visited upon women, but in its bid to adhere to political correctness, an important opportunity to advocate explicitly for women is missed.)


A few weeks ago, a former colleague of mine, Erin Gloria Ryan, was interviewed on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, a satirical show that premiered earlier this year on Comedy Central. Ryan, whom I met while she worked at Jezebel, pointed out that many of the men who are being outed during this glorious purging of serial rapists and assaulters chose their victims based on a lack of power. But the growth of what Ryan dubbed the “me too moment,” and the growing empowerment of women seeing their private experiences reflected publicly on every social media platform, has led to a kind of power most victims never dreamed they would hold. And, as more previously untouchable men topple under the weight of public exposure, the shift has left many, including Ryan, cautiously optimistic that it might be permanent.

Unfortunately, the insidious nature of these allegations is that they never exist in a vacuum — the cultural collusion that must take place in order for women to remain victims of this kind of violence permeates every level of our society. The connection between domestic homicide and the secret predations that have systematically undercut the ability of women to claim their power remains a sickeningly entrenched narrative in American society, as well as our legal and political systems. Is it so hard to wonder why a future led by powerful women is impossible to imagine when these shocking behaviors have been “open secrets” for so many years? When a man who has bragged on tape about sexual assault is president? When our only means of defense in these realms is the “whisper network,” in which women quietly warn one another away from men who might do them harm.

In Maine, despite the Review Panel’s mandate to churn out reports every two years, women continue to fight for incremental changes in the status quo. In May of this year, Republicans blocked even the possibility of a voter referendum to enshrine gender equality via an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution. A current bill to create a “victim’s bill of rights” has met with staunch opposition, including a blistering editorial in the Bangor Daily News, which framed the amendment as an out-of-state billionaire’s agenda with too many problems to be of actual use.

While it’s true that Henry T. Nicholas, a billionaire from California, is the money man behind the campaign for Marsy’s Law, named after Nicholas’s sister who was stalked and murdered by her ex-boyfriend, the logic behind denying victims protections through a constitutional amendment seems shaky. The BDN’s editorial — which was published with no byline, by the way — essentially argues that the state would have difficulty complying with an amendment that protects victims’ rights, due to the state’s inability to meet the current legal requirements, which are not enshrined in the constitution. Their proposal is to create a fund that ensures victims are rewarded restitution that is owed, a legal obligation the state already faces, but has trouble carrying out.

Why not both?

Is it too much to ask that women, who would obviously benefit most from this law, be protected by all the powers at our disposal after years of systemic marginalization and abuse? Shouldn’t we be implementing laws and policies at every level to protect women now that the veil has been lifted on a furtive culture that has stunted the power and progress of women at every turn?

DrewChristopher Joy, Executive Director of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center (SMWC), is working on one of those levels. It’s one of the reasons that their current campaign for earned paid sick leave includes a stipulation that would allow Portland employees to take paid time off to care for themselves or family members who have been victims of domestic abuse, stalking, or sexual assault.

“Our campaigns have always been intersectional because we know that there is a direct impact of gender on a person’s ability to get work, maintain work, and get to work safely.” Joy says the current state labor law, which guarantees victims’ time off but doesn’t guarantee compensation, doesn’t do enough. SMWC also plans to relaunch their hotline, where members can report abuse from employers, including sexual harassment, early next year.

The connection between a seemingly simple campaign for paid leave and the revolution of women’s power may not seem obvious, but one recommendation On the Path to Prevention makes it clear: “Employers, supervisors, and co‐workers have the opportunity to engage in protective actions when framed by a comprehensive workplace response to domestic abuse. Employers who institute workplace domestic abuse policies foster a workplace culture of safety, and identify response strategies that increase safety and support for victims, as well as identify measures of perpetrator accountability.” The ability to take time off without a financial burden for the victim could literally save lives in Portland.


The growing visibility and education around everyday abuses of women in this country — particularly women of color; queer, femme, non-binary and trans women; and women living in poverty — are creating a strengthening vortex where powerful men with hidden proclivities for violence or misconduct must be starting to tremble at the edge. But this moment comes only after years of enabling, secrecy, and money created a culture that prioritized money over women’s bodies.

While Olivia and I continued to pick half-heartedly at the carcass of a truly superb dinner, I noted with dark humor that in her aromatic kitchen, we’d managed to pass the Bechdel test, a rubric meant to expose the structural inequalities of gender representation in the film industry. The test dictates that at a bare minimum, a film must have two named female characters who converse with one another about something other than a man. For such a simple scale, little more than half of last year’s top-grossing films passed the test.

But then I remembered that this year, women made more movies, dominated box office earnings, and amassed more praise from critics than ever before. Women just helped the Democratic Party win seats they ran for because their opponents were toxic masculinity personified. Black women, in particular, voted overwhelmingly for progressive candidates — their votes ensured our continued march toward a less apocalyptic future. And women, who comprise the majority of the Domestic Abuse Homicide Prevention Panel, have made recommendations at the expense of their own mental health, by reviewing grisly reports every month, that have created a safer Maine for other women.

Perhaps the “whisper network,” which operated in selective secrecy for so many years but has now gained public attention, is ready to become the shouting revolution. Maybe a future where women are free to pursue their passions without threat is almost visible.

Sultana Khan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

  • Published in Features

Ignore the sound bites — People are just trying to survive

FullSizeRender (10)Roles of Engagement is a column concerning the actions and dimensions of allyship, looking at cultural events both locally and nationally. Sultana Khan (@YesAsInGenghis) is a Portland-based writer and has written for Gawker, Jalopnik, and Dispatch magazine. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


It seems as if the last year has been one filled with emotionally devastating events, each tragedy failing to achieve any sense of closure before the next surge crashes over our heads. To live in this world, in 2017, feels like it has become an exercise in survival, our lives reduced to thistorturous cycle of holding our heads aloft long enough to take shallow gulps of air before being pushed under once again.Fear of the swell that finally does us in seems to be permanently lurking just below the surface.

Inevitably, the rhetoric surrounding these occurrences fades to discussing the beauty and resiliency of the human spirit. Sound bites from heroic bystanders are woven into feel-good narratives, accompanied by a dramatic score guaranteed to bring even the most hardened cynic to tears. The oft-repeated quote, “Look for the helpers,” attributed to Fred Rogers’ mother, gets Instagrammed onto sunset backgrounds and hashtagged almost unto death, until finally, the pain of our entirely avoidable circumstance is diluted to a dull, pounding ache.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Rogers’ advice was intended for children.

In fact, the PBS website where the story is corroborated is titled, “Helping Children Deal with Tragic Events in the News.” But in this America, the one we have made for ourselves, Rogers’ advice has become the standard placebo for adults desperate to make sense of a seemingly insensible world. It’s easier to look for the helpers than to work toward actionable change, the kind of change that would address the deaths of the33,000 people killed annually by gun violence.

mr rogers photo meme

I understand the value in looking for the helpers, although a darker, uglier voice in my head wonders, “Is humanity worth celebrating right now?”But I believe it’s worth reframing the advice for adults— after all, we’re the ones tasked with creating the ambitious policies and cultures that would eradicate the need for these helpers. So while were celebrating the heroes who unhesitatingly shield others from gunfire with their equally fragile flesh, or the brave people who form human chains to rescue desperate strangers from rising floodwaters, or the mayor who wades through sewage to help her constituents while their president plays golf … look for the haters, too.


Look for the people whose only action is to offer thoughts and prayers — look for the Joel Osteens. Look for the politicians who preempt meaningful discussions about climate change and gun violence and peaceful protesting with cries of politicization or disrespect. Look for the ones who call for “civil discourse,” a (racist) dog whistle meant to undermine the righteous fury of folks who have every right to be screaming and spitting.


Look for the ones who profit in the wake of a tragedy. Sturm Ruger’s stocks gained four percent on October 2. The stock of the company who owns the Winchester brand of ammunition reached an all-time high that same day. It’s appalling, but we’ve been through this often enough to now know that gun stocks have a history of rallying directly after mass shootings. What’s to incentivize gun manufacturers to do anything about the violence their products beget?


Look for the racists, the subtle and the overt ones. Look for the people who won’t label a man who killed 59 people a terrorist because he’s white. Look for the people who use this opportunity to claim the shooter could have been attacking Christians without a shred of evidence to support it. Look for the media bias that would allow this man to be labeled a “lone wolf” or mentally ill without looking at the radicalization of young white men in this country. Look at the FBI whose top priority in labeling new domestic threats is to focus on “black identity extremists.”


Look for the people who play sleight of hand tricks by introducing new legislation to roll back health care mandates that protect women’s reproductive rights. Look for schools that pass measures allowing them to expel protestors. Look for the enablers who allow serial sexual harassers to prey on young women for decades until they can no longer do so, not because they’ve come to understand morality, but because they finally got caught. Look for the companies that erect statues of bold young girls and then quietly settle for millions because they’ve been systematically underpaying women for years.


Keep a weather eye on the enemy — they only seem to be winning right now. They’re adrift in the same ocean, and with the slightest change in current, they could be gasping for air, too.



The Labors of Listening

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In February of 2016, I answered a robocall from white supremacists supporting Donald Trump at my mother’s house in Vermont. It was a shocking, gut-wrenching thing to hear the tinny voice of a white nationalist gripe about the dearth of “beautiful white children” in our school systems.

If I’d had any idea of what was to come, I would have hung up before that disembodied voice could even utter the words, “gradual genocide against the white race,” but I listened all the way to the end, shaken by the gleefully hateful rhetoric. I was alone at the house at the time, and I remember shutting all the blinds of our rural home, miles from our neighbors. I felt physically vulnerable in a way I never had in my beloved home state.

This isn’t to say I’ve never experienced racism while living in Vermont — one hilariously blind racist at a gas station couldn’t even come up with the appropriate slur and called me the n-word — but, generally, it has presented itself through systemic injustices, sheer ignorance, or the fetishism of my “exotic” background. The robocall was a deliberate assault on my home, a strategic message meant to intimidate Vermonters’ sense of safety and security. And it worked.

My white mother, my staunchest ally and most fierce protector, was furious and distraught. Our stronghold had been breached by men who viewed her as a race traitor for her marriage to a Pakistani immigrant. But the deeper wound for her, amid a presidential campaign filled with openly racist language, was the idea that the robocall had occurred because she was a registered member of the GOP, and longtime Republican National Committee employee. She berated herself for the idea that the call had been made because of her allegiance to a party she no longer recognized as her own.

In the end, it wasn’t her fault we’d been targeted — the American Freedom Party, the group responsible for the message, called every landline in Vermont — but I noticed a distinct shift in our conversations. We’d never discussed race in our house when I was growing up, even though we were a multiracial household. My mother had celebrated my brown skin and participated in the traditions of my father’s culture, even going so far as to wear a white sari on their wedding day, but real conversations about racism were nonexistent.

That changed after the robocall. We’ve had many painful, uncomfortable, and frustrating conversations over the course of the last year. The concept of “white privilege” has been one we’ve discussed at length, although the actual phrase is guaranteed to put her on the defensive — we’ve talked about that defensiveness, too. Further discussions about systemic racism and structural inequalities have given our already solid relationship new depth.

Some of my brown and black friends have made comments about how I’m doing emotional labor I shouldn’t have to in order to facilitate these conversations. But a few weeks ago, I read an article by Panama Jackson, Senior editor of Very Smart Brothas, titled "How Trump Ruined My Relationship With My White Mother." I sent it to my mom, with a quick text that said, “This is devastating. The only reason it isn’t true for us is because you hear me.”

I agree that the expectation for people of color to do this kind of emotional labor is unfair and exhausting. I’m certainly not willing to do it for most people. But many people of color in Maine have white family members, partners, and close friends — people with whom we cannot have meaningful relationships if we feel unsafe.

I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to distance themselves from those who refuse to do their own work, but I can’t help but wonder, if we’re not willing to do the work, and other white folks won’t step up to the plate, who’s going to do it? If I’m not willing to sit down and have hard talks with my own mother about racism and how it affects us both, will there ever be someone I deem worth the effort?

Earlier this week, I was ranting to my mom about how the cigarette industry targets minority communities, and she listened patiently while I cursed the tobacco industry at length. When I paused to take a breath, she said, “You know, I’m coming around to the idea of white privilege. The word privilege still bothers me, but I understand it better now.” After a shocked pause, having learned from her example, I shut up and listened.

Sultana Khan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


Responding to Charlottesville — The Fight-or-Flight of Activism

By the time you read this, I’ll be in Alaska. Or maybe we’ll all be dead by then, reduced to ash thanks to a man who can’t bring himself to condemn Nazis, but can wage war via Twitter. At this point, I’d honestly just like some type of resolution. Are we going to be obliterated or not? I’m exhausted from worrying about our imminent doom all the time, and it’s creating dark circles under my eyes. Concealer can only do so much.

Alaska?,” you might be asking. Yes, Alaska! I’m headed out for a week of solo adventuring as I type this, so I’ll admit to a little senioritis — I don’t want to be writing about Nazis any more than you want to read about them. But Alaska, land of salmon and bears and humpback whales, seems like the perfect place to remind myself of the promise our country once boasted.

The plan for this trip came about in less than a week. I managed to find cheap fares to Anchorage and pulled the trigger as soon as the first frisson of fear crept down my spine. I’d already gotten a confirmation email before awareness set in. I’m not ashamed to admit I panicked as soon as the notification popped up on my phone.

Part of the fear stems from the fact that the Alaskan wilderness is so all-encompassing there is no word for it in Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) — it simply is. Part of the fear factor is due to … well, bears. But mostly it’s the knowledge I’ll be 4500 miles from everything I know, by myself.

The funny thing, and it would take years of knowing me and/or psychoanalysis to understand this, is that overwhelming feeling of lightheadedness — the way my body processes fear — is exactly why I’m going. It’s the way I’ve made most of the major decisions in my life.

Jumping off a cliff into an abandoned quarry at 16? Sure! College in New York City? Why not! Moving to California at 22? Cool! Skydiving? But of course! Buying a sailboat in San Diego even though I didn’t know how to sail? OK! Writing about my mental illness? Check! The greatest growth spurts in my life can be directly attributed to this desire to outlast my fear, and I’ve never been disappointed with the results.

When I called my mom to let her know I’d booked tickets to Alaska, the first thing she said was, “I’m so proud of you.” The second thing was to ask if I was frightened. When I related that I was terrified, she told me a story about her own trip to Nepal — her first time out of the country — and mentioned that she started sobbing the moment the plane took off. Of course, she was on six week-long trek to hike Base Camp One of Mount Everest, but that’s neither here nor there.

Currently, I’m watching a video of a Nazi intentionally ramming a car into protesters in Charlottesville play over and over on the news at the Dallas airport. It’s 2017 and white supremacists are employing the same tactics as ISIS. So when I think about what it means to be an ally today, and tomorrow, and every day after that, I think the most important component of the resistance will be our ability to keep moving forward despite our fear. What could be more terrifying than Nazis? 

Months ago, Melissa Harris-Perry wrote an excellent New York Times piece about how the NAACP could keep from becoming irrelevant. She called for the organization, a historically powerful agent of hope and progress, to return to its roots of radical resistance or face a slow death at the hands of bureaucracy. She pointed to the NAACP’s pivotal role during “the bloody times,” as the height of their influence. It was a compelling argument, and it’s prescience is almost chilling with the images of tiki torch-wielding assholes splashed across my news feed.

I would love to be wrong, but a bloody time has come. One can only hope that the resiliency we’ve been building to our fears, through a variety of less dangerous means, will continue to serve us in the face of actual Nazism. Fear not, comrades, we will overcome.

Sultana Khan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Do Maine Dems Understand the Stakes?

I’m writing this column from the oppressive heat of Washington, D.C., so I hope you’ll excuse me if this comes off a little cranky. I was born here, at the private, non-profit Columbia Hospital for Women in 1985. Originally founded in 1866 as a charitable hospital for the desperate, pregnant wives of missing Civil War soldiers, the hospital closed permanently in 2002. You can now buy a two-bedroom for 1.5 million bucks in the wing where Duke Ellington was born.

It feels strange to be here, reminiscing about a hospital that has been turned into condos, while a health care bill that considers womanhood to be a pre-existing condition flounders on the Senate floor. But it doesn’t seem like the city has changed as much as you might imagine under the new administration. I can’t tell if that’s because I’m crossing the street to avoid people wearing red hats or if I’m still reeling from our own state’s recent catastrophe.

Given the number of hot takes written about the recent government shutdown, it would be self-indulgent to bore readers with further discussion of our spectacularly inept Democratic leadership. Luckily for all of us, as an only child, I’m entirely comfortable with a little self-indulgence. And I’m still spitting mad. Perhaps we take a moment to talk about what it means for progressive politics when you capitulate to conservative hostage tactics.

As the daughter of a longtime Republican campaign strategist, I’m intimately familiar with the lengths to which politicians will go to subvert the will of the people in favor of their own vested interests. But in the current climate, as Trump cronies try to coerce the Republican National Committee into footing the legal costs of the Russia investigation, the bar seems to have been lowered even further. Politicians no longer even pretend to follow the will of their constituents — when you fail to pass a budget because it incorporates a voter-approved tax increase, to whom, exactly, do you think you’re accountable? It’s obviously not Mainers.

But worse than conservatives who have been willing to let their loose-cannon governor “play chicken” for months are the progressive leaders who couldn’t negotiate a compromise budget that continued to promote public health, education reform, or wealth equality. With the local news writing op-ed after op-ed making it clear the shutdown was the result of a crude measuring contest, how did Democrats fail so miserably to stand up for the people who voted them into office?

The short-sighted nature of this budget is going to come calling on Mainers, and I think it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. In addition to reinforcing conservative theories that we’re more afraid of being labeled bad guys than holding firm to our principles, we’ve re-emboldened a majority-held Senate to demean and mock our values. Poor people? Who cares, they can just work harder! The mentally ill? Fine, we’ll keep the same, poorly implemented programming we had before! Prevention services designed to improve public health? Cut ‘em — public health is a made-up term anyway!

Here’s the thing — Maine is dying. The median age is 43.5 years old. We can’t retain young people, and our workforce could face a 50,000-person shortage within the next 15 years. One Mainer per day, on average, is lost to the opioid crisis. One-fifth of our children are living in poverty. It means nothing to post signs proclaiming we’re “open for business” when we’re literally shut down, and figuratively governed by a ruler-wielding clown.

Maybe I mean literally in both instances.

I can’t seem to shake the feeling that the political arena, as we know it, is dead. As I was watching the drama unfold at the State House on July 3, I kept coming back to a conversation I had with a friend who lobbies on behalf of progressive causes. She asserted over and over that nothing was certain, that nothing could be guaranteed — that the old ways of governance are dying, and that our fight to reclaim any semblance of democratic process is futile.

Part of me thinks that’s an easy cop out for a woman who bills by the hour. But a greater part of me thinks she’s right. And if the fight is futile, isn’t it time for progressive politicians to change the battleground?

Sultana Khan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hold On To Your Humanity

About a decade ago, I made a conscious decision to try and be more kind. The choice came on the heels of a particularly nasty argument I’d had with a friend from college, one where my words were so thoughtlessly cruel even I had a hard time being around myself in the following days. In the misery of my self-imposed exile, I decided that I couldn’t continue as I had been, and promised myself I’d work harder at curbing my tongue and deepening my capacity for empathy.

Changing the outward-facing self is hard, and I’ve made terrible mistakes along the way. Additionally, my ability to make substantive changes to the ways in which I approach the world has been tempered by the fact that I was born with an evil super power. Even as a child I was able to see the fault lines along a person’s character — the way a casual, cutting comment about someone’s deepest, obvious insecurity could win an argument while reducing the other person to tear-stained rubble. It’s not a skill I’m proud of, but I’ll admit I’ve used it to great effect when my temper has gotten the better of me.

Over the last several months, I’ve had a tough time keeping the promise I made to myself so many years ago. The instinctual desire to lay waste to everything and everyone around me makes me feel like I’ve reverted into the girl who flayed her friends one by one until she didn’t have many left. It’s a deeply depressing feeling, especially as it seems the external factors influencing this rage are unlikely to change in any meaningful way soon.

Occasionally, though, I’m reminded of the real reasons I made this vow in the first place. It wasn’t just because I felt lousy about myself, although that’s a perfectly fine reason to have made it. Instead, it was due to a larger awakening about my place in the world, and how my little jigsaw piece affects the greater puzzle.

A few weeks ago, I attended a party for some extremely woke folks who are hellbent on changing the world. The discussions I kept overhearing as I wandered around the room were centered around the philosophical obligations to do good, which made it all the more shocking that I found most of the people in the room to be, frankly, mean as snakes. The juxtaposition of high-level conversations about improving the state of our society coupled with almost comically exaggerated sneers and gossip was jarring.

Later that night, I was texting with a friend about the bizarre nature of the meetup, and the disconnect that seems to be growing, rapidly, between political liberalism and personal responsibility. There seems to be this pervasive, pernicious mentality that if you vote and volunteer and write your senator on behalf of disenfranchised communities, you’ve gained enough extra credit to behave like a trash can in your personal life.

It’s nothing new, I know. But if we’ve gained literally nothing else from this spray tan dictatorship, it’s the knowledge that our personal lives do matter. Kindness matters. Empathy matters. The relationships we build with others matter. The ripple effect of our actions have consequences.

Conservatives have long held that a politician’s moral fiber is as important as their ability to govern. Despite their seeming disavowal of that statement — and the intent with which it was once said — I think there’s something to be gleaned from the sentiment for liberal politicians and non-politicians alike. As were mudding our way through this catastrophe, don’t forget the importance of our humanity. In the end, it might be all we have left.

Sultana Khan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Why Are Women Still Looking for Witches to Burn?

A few weeks ago, I went to Augusta for “Women’s Day at the State House,” an event presented by the Maine Women’s Alliance. After scouring my closet for the suggested red article of clothing—I found one, but latex is not State House or even outside-of-my-house appropriate—I settled on a black dress and black coat and black leggings because, honestly, that’s just where I’ m living these days.

I think this perpetual mood is best described by a sign I saw at the Women’s March in January. A young woman, whose half-shaved h ead mirrored my own, was carrying a piece of cardboard that read, “We are the daughters of the witches you didn’t burn.” I remember making sligh tly pained eye contact with her,  the way in which only women who are so tired of this shit can.

But the phrase has stuck with me, and I’ve talked about it at length with most of my acquaintances. A few weeks ago, my best friend, who has recently taken up embroidery, proudly showed me a tote bag she’s been making for me with the quote stitched on one side. (My love for the bag, and my friend, is not lessened by the fact that her beginner stitchwork reads closer to, “We are the dogwalkers of the witches you didn’t burn.")

Back at the State House, one of the first panel’s speakers was a lobbyist whose credentials were better than average. She spent her allotted five minutes going over a series of talking points on how to best reach and influence your elected representatives. It was a useful topic, and I thought she delivered her spiel well. A woman sitting next to me, however, pointedly kept her hand raised despite an earlier explanation that a Q&A period would have to wait due to time constraints.

The lobbyist, weary of pretending not to see the raised hand, took the woman’s question, which ended up being more of a snotty statement that disagreed with the speaker’s position on whether to contact state representatives outside your own district—the lobbyist said this wasn’t a good use of time, and could backfire, which is a true and reasonable thing to say.  The woman asking the question, however, found the answer less practical than I did, and muttered under her breath to her friend, “Don’t womansplain to me.” I listened to them cackle in horror.

I’ll freely admit, I laughed out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Our speaker, a progressive woman with plenty of practical experience, offering her expert opinion, couldn’t even find a wholly welcoming audience among the liberal women gathered to support the (now failed) constitutional amendment hoping to enshrine gender equality. The sheer idiocy of the situation, juxtaposed with the reality that liberals are failing miserably to consolidate power, much less halt conservative policy initiatives, nearly left me hysterical.

It’s enough to wonder why, in the middle of one of the most insanely batshit presidencies this country has ever witnessed, liberal women are still finding ways to rat each other out to the Inquisition.  I can’t stomach any more talk about women who voted for Trump, but I can focus on the women with whom I’d hoped to align post-election. Thus far that focus has been particularly disappointing.

Later in the day, it was revealed that Kellyanne Conway was in the building for a discussion with the Governor and Secretary Tom Price about Maine’s opioid epidemic. The Hall of Flags, buzzing with angry women, was suddenly alive with energy. Planned Parenthood signs were distributed, and chants of, “Shame!” could be heard echoing through the State House. In my black dress, I watched the sea of red find solidarity against a new foe.

At least these daughters can recognize a dark witch when they see one.


Sultana Khan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.




Finding Hope With A Seat at the Table

At the end of March, I applied to attend a dinner event promoted by the Treehouse Institute.

As part of a three-month long series known as A Seat at the Table, a concept invented and implemented by Portland's Chanel Lewis, the dinner represented an opportunity to engage in difficult dialogues with fellow Portland residents concerning a variety of issues. The series featured several meet-ups open to the public, occurring in casual spaces with an emphasis on discussing complex social issues. On the final Thursday of the month, an invitation-only dinner was hosted at the Press Hotel.

I met Lewis last year at a networking event for people of colorsponsored by her now-shuttered organization, Represent. Unsurprisingly, there was a small, but vibrant community in attendance. That particular evening introduced me to a number of well-known Portland residents of color, including City Council member at-large Pious Ali, and Roberto Rodriguez, who serves on the Board of Education for Portland Public Schools.

At the time of the networking event, I was freelancing for a national digital outlet, focusing on cultural commentary. Since then, I’ve taken a consulting position at the Maine Youth Action Network (MYAN), hoping to help improve public health by creating opportunities for youth engagement in social justice initiatives. It feels important to mention this only because my approach toward activism has transitioned from personal to professional, leaving me with less incentive to dedicate my free time to activist meetups. A Seat at the Table reminded me I can do both.

Shamefacedly, I’ll admit I only attended one meet-up by Represent. There’s something uniquely awkward and depressing to me about a group of colored folks striving to create a sense of camaraderie in New England, a place that prides itself on being open and affirming while its minority citizens consistently feel alienated and underrepresented. I recognize the importance of the community, but in the wake of the election, I lost most of my drive to do anything other than sulk.

This dinner was different. The topic of conversation was sex, gender, and identity. My friend Shane Diamond, the Executive Director and founder of Speak About It, an organization I recently wrote about for their involvement in directing a service industry-based bystander intervention training (see "Are Portland Bars Safe For Everyone?" in the April 13 issue), was the facilitator.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the dinner felt so successful, but I left rejuvenated in a way that felt almost spiritual. The attendees, chosen by offering seats to people of differing socio-economic status, religion, age, political affiliation, and race, were a group of people trying to have a conversation based on the assumption that all had something to learn at a table with such diverse view points.

The sense of cautious hope I left with has persisted despite this country’s efforts to stamp it out. At the start of the dinner, Lewis mentioned the importance of breaking bread with one another as a symbol of friendship and family, but left out the details of the dinner’s conception. So I asked her a few questions about how she’d come up with the idea, in hopes it might be replicated.

SK: Where did this idea come from?

CL: The idea came from feeling like I was only talking to people [who] thought the way I do. I wanted everyone to have seats at the table.

How is this series being funded?

We have a private funder for the operational costs. Union Restaurant has donated the space and meals for our dinners. We've also received funding from Red Thread!

What are the goals for this series?

To break down silos, talk to people you normally wouldn't about issues that matter to all of us, and to practice listening to understand, rather than listening to agree.

How many people have attended the public meetings so far?

Approximately 70!

Advice for people interested in hosting their own version?

Hit me up! This model is totally replicable and I make all our materials Creative Commons so folks can use it!

For more information about how to host your own event, contact Chanel Lewis at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Sultana Khan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Are Portland Bars Safe for Everyone?

“Where are you guys???” The extra question marks at the end of the text are the first hint that something might be wrong.


A friend is waiting for us at a bar by himself, while his wife and I amble down Congress Street. We’re late (as usual) but when he meets us outside The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, his face is marked by a different sort of anxiety, not simple irritation.


“There’s a drunk guy who’s been harassing me ever since I got here. Let’s just go somewhere else.” It’s February. My friend has just officially begun using male pronouns, accompanied by a legal name change and a first dose of testosterone.


This is a suggestion that does not sit well with my friend’s wife. She is ready to hand me her earrings and teach the man in question a lesson. I am ready for a cocktail. We compromise and head back inside to ask the bartenders to eject him.


As we walk inside, my friend scans the crowded room to point out the culprit while a strange hand intimately caresses my buttocks. I turn around, and a man I don’t know is leering at me. A few seconds of disbelief pass before the rage I carry deep inside as a woman has me forcefully pushing him away and yelling at him not to touch me. I am in his face and furious, pounding his chest in an effort to make him understand the singular ownership I have over these fists and every other part of my body.


The man is asked to leave shortly thereafter, although the bartenders' initial hesitancy means I’m close to swinging at his smirking face by the time he walks out the door.


Throughout the entire ordeal, not a single bar patron intervenes. A week later, a different man calls my friend’s wife a “fucking dyke,” after she politely rejects his repeated advances. She and another female friend are both punched in the head during the ensuing bar fight, this time at Brian Boru.


So what is Portland, one of the most restaurant-dense cities in the country, doing to prevent sexual violence and harassment in bars?


Unfortunately, not enough.




Last month, at a privately booked fundraising event, an incident at Empire involving a patron and a bouncer made the rounds on social media. According to the patron, a bouncer wouldn't let her close the door to a single-stall bathroom, insisting it was strictly for men, and afterward physically removed her from another part of the bar.


The woman in question declined to be quoted when reached for comment, citing social media harassment after her initial post about the incident was widely shared. A manager at Empire requested anonymity, but disputed the sequence of events, claiming video footage cleared the bouncer of wrongdoing. The manager mentioned some possible shifts in policy following the incident, with a focus on improved de-escalation training and gender-balanced shift crews. (The manager also said the bouncer involved is no longer employed by Empire.)


In the course of chatting with folks about their experiences with sexual violence at establishments in Portland, I found this kind of discrepancy to be routine. Few people wanted to be quoted, and while rumors of bars where multiple women claimed to have been roofied were shared with me, no one was willing to go on record.


It’s hardly surprising, given the small community and competitive nature of Portland’s food scene. Furthermore, particularly when alcohol is involved, it's hard to separate truth and liability from whitewashed public relations strategies. Unfortunately, sexual violence prevention-training is so chronically underfunded that sometimes the best opportunities for change are reliant on corporate branding.


Andrew Volk of The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club claims he’s tried to create a culture in his establishment that supports both staff and patrons to intervene when situations arise. “It’s not just a social justice issue, it’s a business issue. Management has to be the one to cultivate this culture of intervention," he says. "If workers are afraid to intervene, for a customer, or themselves, that hurts a business’s ability to create a safe space.”


Volk and his wife, Briana, with whom he co-owns the bar, have been trying to bring Safe Bars, a D.C.-based organization dedicated to “training bar staff how to stand up to sexual violence,” to Portland. They are currently fundraising and seeking corporate sponsorship to defray costs for a Safe Bars training.


Cara Courchesne, Communications Director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), says this lack of prevention-based training is definitively linked to the funding structure that exists within the world of anti-sexual assault advocacy.


Many federal and state grants, including substantial funding from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, are intervention-oriented — specifically for victims of crime, and responding to their immediate needs. That leaves affordable prevention-based services in high demand, but with limited capacity.


In the meantime, one local organization is stepping up to the task. Shane Diamond, founder and Executive Director of Speak About It, a Portland-based nonprofit that partners with high schools and colleges to educate and empower students and their communities to create healthy relationship practices and prevent sexual violence, offered a bystander-intervention training to Volk’s staff and other members of the United States Bartenders Guild last month.  


Diamond says it was a no-brainer for Speak About It to facilitate this kind of training, given their focus on equipping students with the tools to talk about consent. A dozen service industry professionals attended the workshop. Both Volk and Diamond hope to offer more trainings.


Courchesne pointed out that bystander-intervention and prevention-based trainings are spiking nationally in the wake of the new administration, but they’re mostly for elementary and high school-age students. Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM), one of the most active advocacy organizations in the Portland area, is “booked months in advance” for the educational programs it offers schools.


This offers upcoming generations a powerful tool in fighting sexual violence, but it means that many who have aged out of those programs have never even heard about “bystander intervention.”




Late last year, the service industry at large was rocked by the allegations of more than a dozen female service industry workers who shared their stories of sexual violence at the hands of a well-known West Coast barman through a blog, “The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community.” Although the man was never named, the blog became a national clarion call for women in the hospitality industry to expose the rampant sexual harassment and assault they face daily.


According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the restaurant industry is responsible for 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims. According to a report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, 80 percent of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment from customers.


Of that 80 percent, more than a third reported it happened on a weekly basis. Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents had been harassed by managers. Transgender and minority workers reported substantially higher rates of sexual harassment and assault.




“Imagine the statistics of sexual violence are an upside-down triangle. At the top, the wide base, are all of the incidents surrounding sexual harassment and assault — street harassment, assault in bars, rape, attempted rape, flashing, groping, etc. The level below that, much smaller, are the incidents that are reported. Below that, the ones that find a prosecutor willing to take the case. Then the ones that actually make it to trial. And finally, the smallest piece of the triangle, at the bottom, are all the cases where a conviction is made, and an offender goes to prison.”


Courchesne is trying to answer my question about why statistics about sexual assault and harassment in Maine are so hard to find. Maine doesn’t even have a database for sexual assaults that have been prosecuted, much less data about incidents that never made it to trial.


Maine isn’t unique in this, but the lack of data is astonishing — according to a 2015 report from the University of Southern Maine, one in five Mainers will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. The same report claims “14,000 Mainers will experience sexual violence” per year. Yet a Maine Department of Public Safety Report from 2015 found only 373 rapes or attempted rapes were reported to Maine law enforcement that year.


Courchesne tells me, “sexual violence is the most underreported violent crime in the United States.” But in some ways, the cultural shifts needed to address the United States’ shockingly high rates of sexual assault are starting to gain traction. Unsurprisingly, however, the legal system continues to lag far behind.


Last June, BuzzFeed published a letter written by a sexual assault victim to her attacker, then-Stanford student Brock Turner. The woman’s powerful letter addressing both her own situation and campus rape culture instantly went viral. It was viewed more than 11 million times in four days. It remains the website’s most popular post of all time, outpacing former viral content about Disney princesses and exploding watermelons.


Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault but only received six months in prison, sparking outrage and a concentrated effort to remove presiding Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky from the bench. Persky was later cleared of misconduct by an independent commission. Turner served three months of his sentence before receiving an early release.




“I wanted my bar to be a safe space before I knew what that meant.” Nan’l Meiklejohn, owner of The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, is sitting across from me at Tandem on a sunny morning, slightly rumpled, but eager to share his thoughts about the work that needs to be done in Portland to address what he calls “the kind of aggressive behavior that’s common in bar culture.”


The day after I was assaulted, Meiklejohn contacted me via social media. I’d shared my story online, and he was sincerely, believably apologetic that I’d been unsafe in his bar. My experience had sparked a renewed discussion with his staff about intervention and personal safety.


I find myself in the odd position of reassuring him that I don’t hold him responsible for my experience. And I don’t — The Jewel Box continues to be one of my regular haunts. I can’t decide if that’s because I find Meiklejohn to be utterly trustworthy when he says he’s been actively looking for ways to actively improve his ability to provide a safe space, or because a few of his recent cocktails have featured lavender bitters, my version of cocktail kryptonite.


But he has proof. He forwards me an email from Mackenzie Morris, owner of Étaín Boutique, a Congress Street lingerie shop specializing in “encouraging body-positive attitudes and ... fostering personal empowerment.” It’s dated January 11, nearly a month before my incident at his bar, and the subject line reads “Small Business and Social Justice.” It’s an invitation to form a “network of local business owners who value the humanity, dignity, and safety of marginalized groups and individuals over perceived ‘commercial success’.”


The first bullet point on a list of proposed shared goals reads, “Fostering safer spaces and advocating for marginalized groups and individuals, including clientele, employees, and any other members of the community.” Meiklejohn praises Morris’s efforts, saying their letter better articulates the reasons he started The Jewel Box in the first place.

I go to Étaín to ask Morris what that means moving forward. "We've established what we're doing, but it's a work in progress," they say. Meiklejohn says he hopes Morris’s proposed coalition sparks a broader discussion among small businesses in Portland to answer his original question — what does it mean to be a safe space?




I sat down with Diamond to ask for some tips on how to empower bystanders and yourself to intervene in situations where they might be witnessing harassment. Here’s what he told me:


  1. Trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable witnessing something, chances are someone else is uncomfortable too. Don’t discount the power of intuition.

  2. Intervention does not have to be confrontational. Offer to escort someone to the bathroom, or to accompany you to get a glass of water. By removing someone from a potentially hazardous situation without confrontation, the likelihood of a physical or verbal altercation immediately decreases.

  3. If you don’t feel comfortable intervening, find someone else with the necessary skill set. It’s perfectly okay to find someone with more experience or presence to help in a hostile situation. It’s not okay to do nothing.

  4. Don’t be afraid to remove yourself quickly from a dangerous or threatening situation. Diamond points out that a bar tab can always be paid the next day. Put your personal safety as a top priority.

  5. If you’re uncomfortable about a situation or environment, talk about it. It’s unlikely you’re alone in your feelings. Is there a bar you’ve heard is notorious for harassment or unsafe behavior? Tell people. It’s the first step towards community-wide change.

  6. Set clear expectations with your friends before going out. This allows everyone to operate within the same set of guidelines even after alcohol or drugs might have become involved.


It’s clear from these tips that much of the focus of prevention trainings revolve around clear, open communication. Accountability and change can only come from holding a culture that does little to prevent sexual harassment and violence up to the light. But, as Courchesne says, “There’s no panacea for this. It’s gradual cultural change, and it’s hard work.”


[April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For more information about sexual assault services in southern Maine, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), or Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM).]


Ed: An earlier version of this story stated that the Empire bouncer bodily removed the patron from the single-stall bathroom. It's been corrected to reflect that this happened elsewhere in the bar per clarification of the patron, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Stay on the Offensive

A week after the Women’s March on Washington, I self-published a piece that was largely critical of the event.

I’d attended with reservations, noting at its inception that the March was leaving women of color out of the narrative as well as the organizing hierarchy. That changed as the event grew and Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour assumed leadership roles on the March’s national committee, but I retained a healthy dose of skepticism. Unfortunately, my own experience at the March met my low expectations.

Admittedly, it was a staggering thing to witness the sheer mass of humanity roiling over the National Mall. There were certainly moments I felt buoyed by the anonymous camaraderie of the women surrounding me. But under the joy and the anger that brought half a million women to Trump’s new doorstep, there were problems.

Women of color reported micro-aggressions aplenty. Native women spoke of how fellow march attendees snapped photos of their ceremonial garb while refusing to take pamphlets about indigenous rights. Trans women found themselves in a sea of pink hats equating genitalia with womanhood. Intersectional feminism found itself floundering under the weight of 500,000 women’s differences. And I received hate mail for pointing it out. It’s not the first time an anonymous commenter has tried to put me in my place, and it certainly won’t be the last.

While working for a previous employer, I hosted an event that required security because someone threatened to kill me. And while death threats aren’t the norm for most writers, you’d be hard-pressed to find one who hasn’t experienced some form of harassment from readers. What surprised me, however, was not that I received hate mail, but rather who sent it. Self-identified liberals were absolutely furious with me. One reader implied that by criticizing the March, I’d aligned myself with Trump’s agenda.

Another told me there was a “special place in feminist hell” for me after undermining such an important event. Others called me names I simply can’t print here. Last week, following the death blow dealt to the American Health Care Act, I posted an offhand status about how the obsessive gloating being done by Democratic leaders conveniently ignored the fact that we’re in this mess to begin with because they failed to do their job. It felt horrifyingly detached for elected officials to be mocking Paul Ryan on Twitter while some schools are seeing meteoric rises in truancy because immigrant children are afraid they’ll be deported. The criticism poured in.

People messaged me privately to lambast me for raining on the Affordable Care Act’s victory parade. A casual acquaintance went so far as to tell me she was tired of reading my gloom-and-doom take on the politics and then blocked my account. (I’d like to point out I also posted a photo of my dog in honor of National Puppy Day, so I resent the implication that I’m doing nothing more than making snarky commentary about the current political climate. I make time for baby animals, too.)

It’s these moments that give me pause. Not because I’m offended by the criticism, but because they remind me that change does not come easily or with kind words. My solidarity cannot be assumed, it must be earned.

Over the course of the next few years, liberal communities will find plenty to disagree about —debate is healthy.

But if you find yourself being scolded for your tone, or for voicing an unpopular opinion, remind yourself that personal criticisms may mean you’re doing the work many others don’t have the heart to do. I wish you the best of luck in offending your compatriots.

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