Ways of seeing: Hand symbol can help the abused


Try this with me, will you? Hold up one hand, with your palm facing outward. Then fold in your thumb, like you are making the number four. Now fold your fingers down over your thumb. This symbol, developed by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, is a silent way to let someone know you need help. With domestic violence surging globally during the pandemic, and countless people trapped at home with their abusers, advocates needed a simple way for someone in distress to signal a silent SOS.

The thumb “trapped” by the fingers seemed like a good metaphor for someone feeling unsafe, but advocates still ran the symbol by multiple experts in the fields of domestic violence, gender equality, and sign language to make sure it would convey the message clearly. With so many people interacting with the outside world through video calls, a visual yet silent symbol is a good way to ask for help. Another advantage to the symbol is that unlike an email or a text, a hand gesture leaves no digital trace.

Once the foundation created the symbol, they needed to figure out how to spread the word. What good would it be if no one knew what it meant? Advocates created a video to show what the symbol looked like, and how it could be used. Then someone shared the video on TikTok, leading to widespread awareness of the hand gesture. A teenage girl in Tennessee who was being kidnapped flashed the hand symbol out the window of a car, and a passing motorist knew what it meant and called the police, who put up a roadblock and arrested the perpetrator. This dramatic story made national news, and that’s how I learned about the hand symbol.

Advocates are of course thrilled that the symbol saved someone in a desperate situation, but they also know the gesture is being used in many different ways that often don’t involve law enforcement. Gendered violence happens most often in situations where people are isolated. Abusers often take steps to make it difficult for the person they are harming to contact their friends and family. This is why it’s so important to check in with the people you care about. Even if you haven’t seen the hand gesture, listen to your intuition. A gut feeling that something isn’t right often means someone needs help.

What should you do if you see someone making the gesture? The Canadian Women’s Foundation advises that there may be a number of things someone using the symbol is asking for. The main request is “Please reach out to me safely.” They may want to talk, or get information about services. Let them take the lead, and understand that they may not want you to call the authorities unless they are in imminent danger. One of the best things you could do is reassure them that they are not alone, that they deserve to be safe, that they are not “making things up” (abusers will often gaslight, or deny reality, further harming the mental health of the one they are victimizing).

If you see someone making the gesture, and it is possible for you to do so, ask them yes or no questions like, “Would you like me to call 911?” or “Would you like me to look for some services that might help you, and call you back?” If you reach out via text or email, be aware that an abuser could be monitoring devices. So asking general questions like “How are you doing?” or “Is there any way I can be helpful?” might be the safest route. Most importantly, letting them know you are there, you are concerned, and you want them to be safe.

The holidays can be a stressful time, and stress has a tendency to make bad situations worse. If we could all look with clear eyes at our actions, and ask ourselves: Am I being harmful to the people I live with? Am I pushing my difficult emotions like grief and anger onto someone else? Gendered violence has a long and sordid history, landing hardest on Black and Indigenous women, poor women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people. As the WomenSafe motto says, “Everyone has a role to play in ending domestic and sexual violence.” If we are lucky enough to feel safe in our home this holiday season, may we take steps to protect our broader community. Check in on each other, share resources with those on the front lines of abuse prevention, and look for ways to undermine all systems of oppression. None of us are free until all of us are free.

Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives in Ripton, where she enjoys taking walks, cuddling her cat, cooking for Abolition Kitchen, and serving on the board of WomenSafe, which works with all survivors, anywhere on the gender spectrum! Feedback welcome at: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com

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