The UCL Centre for Gender, Health and Social Justice


Stories Stop Silencing….but we need to do more.

Stories Stop Silencing….but we need to do more.

I remember the stories that I have been told, the stories that I encounter, and the stories that I have spoken. 

The space of stories is peculiar. Language becomes an embodiment of the voice, and the voice stays like a statue through time when spaces are created for words to rest. 

Perhaps my story is not my identity, but my identity is the stories that form who I am. To follow the Derridean notion of a discourse, I am a text, I am a story. When my story is spoken, then I be-come space, I am present where I was absent.  

Global health epitomises stories. We use case-studies, or case-stories, and present lectures arguing that the erasure of a voice is an act of injustice. The injustice is linked to our hermeneutics or epistemologies or the epistemic narrative of who is speaking and who is silent. The silent are the marginalised. To be silent is to be in the margins, to fall from the centre of the page, the essence of who a story is for and who is a story is from. We write and write to fight and fight, so we alter the margins to take the page over the borders and boundaries of our world until we form a collective ink, like the collective blood of humanity that stories are. 

Some scholars define their research with-in the ruptures of a person’s life-story, particularly illness, as a space where stories find a root and trans-form the experiences to healing and recovery. However, I do not see anywhere where our stories are called for. Rather, stories call us. Their inherent virtues are to be shared, to connect, and to create a telling of stories that carries suffering and threads the person’s narrative through the self to the story. 

I argue that such stories stop silencing in my recent TEDx talk. The speaking of the story dismantles the suffocation of the voice, and a voice, a voice may be a vessel of any form, but a vessel it is since the voice is where we our stories are to be found. 

I am surrounded by stories that were silenced. The burden of the silencing is different to being silent. Silenced stories are when the voice cannot travel, there is no vessel, the story remains with the storyteller, in silence, but being told, being lived, being suffered in the violence that separates the story from its teller. Yet, if I am silent then I have a freedom of where my story reaches, perhaps I will tell my story but if I do not, my story is in what I do not tell. My silence is my own.

To be silenced, though, this is the suffocation of the self. I see in the stories I am told by women silenced in their families, healthcare systems, societies, lands, that their silencing is another story of violence. Sometimes there is both silencing and being silent. The silencing is in the ways that the story is suppressed, suffocated, and sanctioned. But if I am silent amid silencing, I am silent because my story will not be received.

And this is why as we, as researchers, continue to deconstruct silencing and to create spaces for voices, there is also another ethical imperative to achieve; how to receive stories of suffering is, for myself, the journey that needs to be undertaken for the vessels of our voices to find the new horizons they seek and for storytellers to feel that the space between their voice and their land is in union. 

Some of the hardest, most violent, parts of telling a story are in the grief and loss of the chosen listener. Here there is a bereavement of hope and humanness, and there is a severing between the story and the teller. The story dies too. To not have your story received is a rejection of all the suffering that stories express. There is not just an emptiness when a story is abandoned or turned away from, there is pain, and pain echoes when there are no words to reveal where the wounds are. 

So, stories stop silencing. But the stopping of silencing excludes the stopping of violence of the voice. To work with stories of suffering, we need to think about the ways we receive stories of suffering. The ethics of the listener are as meaningful as the virtues of sharing stories. To share a story, and for the story to be received in the way that I told the story, that is when I am in a space where I am free from silence and violence. The storyteller is ultimately a Suffered Storyteller, but that is why stories are shared, as a gift, to pass on the meanings of suffering from oneself to another, so that my suffering is your healing. 

For those who have told their stories and their stories were not received in the humanity in which they were shared, your silencing has stopped. But the story of humanity, this is what we must continue to write. 

About the author

Dr Ayesha Ahmad is a lecturer in Global Health at St Georges University of London, where she established a Global Health Humanities Hub, and also is an honorary lecturer at the Institute for Global Health, UCL, and fellow of the Centre for Gender and Global Health. Her background is in philosophy and medical ethics and her research interests are in psychological trauma, gender-based violence, and conflict. She works on developing trauma therapeutic interventions based on traditional storytelling and is co-investigator on a five-country project called Storytelling for Health: Acknowledgement, Expression, and Recovery (