By Russell Leung with photos by Momo Takahashi for AsAmNews
“What were you wearing?”
Activist Amanda Nguyen explained to the audience that she had encountered that phrase twice in her life. It was initially weaponized against her when she came forward as a rape survivor; years later, it was a lighthearted compliment about her outfit at New York Fashion Week.
“I felt, actually, in that moment a sense of healing: ‘Wow, the same words, and yet now I can be happy listening to this,’” Nguyen recalled. “I wanted to share that. And so that is why we’re having this show.”
Nguyen welcomed her guests to her own New York Fashion Week festivities. Her civil rights organization Rise hosted its first ever fashion show on Friday night, featuring and uplifting survivors of sexual violence, at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
The Survivor Fashion Show, also live streamed on Nguyen’s Instagram page, distinguished itself from the other showcases taking place during the week with its social justice mission. Nguyen inverted the traditional victim-shaming question to applaud the survivors and allies who modeled on the catwalk.
She told AsAmNews that survivors deserve to not only recover from their trauma, but also to lead joyful and thriving lives- thus the show’s celebratory environment.
“I think that it will disrupt what a survivor looks like,” Nguyen said. “We are multitudes, we are not just victims on a glass box and a glass pedestal. We are here, we have a voice and we are going to use it.”
After a dance performance by J Chen Project, the models walked the floor, representing brands like Chloé, Diane von Furstenberg and The Hundreds. Among those to walk down the runway were Nguyen, ambassador Victoria Sulimani, actor Kelly Marie Tran, television personality Jeannie Mai Jenkins, aerospace researcher Kellie Gerardi, activist Jenn Li, poet Emi Mahmoud, gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, nonprofit leader Kweku Mandela and actor Terry Crews.
Gerardi told AsAmNews that as an ally, she found it humbling and empowering to join fellow advocates and survivors in the event. The fashion show, she said, succeeded in depicting survivors as thriving individuals.
“Some of the most incredible women I’ve ever met are walking this runway and they look stunning, they feel stunning,” Gerardi said. “It’s a feel-good environment. We’re all celebrating backstage and we’re just pumped to walk, and I’m so honored to be walking with all of them.”
Nguyen also presented an award to Sulimani, Sierra Leone’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, for her work supporting sexual assault survivors. Nguyen highlighted a United Nations resolution, supported by Rise and soon to be introduced by Sierra Leone, to establish a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors.
In accepting the award, Sulimani said that the moment was not about her, but rather the many survivors of sexual assault worldwide. She noted Sierra Leone declared a national emergency of sexual violence in 2019. She called on the rest of the United Nations to support the upcoming resolution, specifically encouraging the ambassadors in attendance to advance its passage.
As a collegiate superstar in a sport that has a long history of abusing female athletes, Ohashi stressed to AsAmNews the “super” importance of being an ally.
“A lot of my friends have been sexually assaulted, literally 500-plus. So yeah, it’s a really, really important cause,” Ohashi said. “I could have easily been one.”
For too long, she said, society has blindly sided with sexual assaulters and dismissed survivors instead of hearing out all sides of the story.
Ohashi expressed strong support for the UN resolution to create a survivors’ bill of rights. She said victim-blaming is all too common because of the perceived gray areas in assault cases.
“I think this is a huge turning point in history, especially for women and so many people that have been survivors of this,” Ohashi said. “It’s the one crime where people question you and make you feel like you did something wrong.”
Li, a survivor who works with Rise to pass legislation, praised Nguyen’s organization for its achievements in codifying protections for survivors. She told AsAmNews that they are pushing to enact a survivor bill of rights in all 50 states.
Rise, which proclaims itself as “the most successful legislative reform movement in U.S. history,” has helped pass 42 laws since its founding in 2014. Li credited its accomplishments to Nguyen’s creative mindset and her dedication to centering the “voiceless.” To her, she said, Nguyen is like a North Star for the cause.
“I feel like I would probably follow her to the end of this world,” Li said. “She never loses sight of why she’s doing this and who is most important.”
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