A Winnipeg woman whose ex-husband broke into her home and installed hidden cameras in the walls of her living room and bedroom has lifted the publication ban on her name in an effort to confront the shame she felt after the incident.
Sara Usman appealed to the Manitoba Courts to lift the ban on her name earlier this year. A judge granted her request Tuesday afternoon.
"It's important because part of my healing revolves around telling my story," Usman said.
The publication ban was imposed on Usman's identity after her ex-husband was charged with voyeurism and distributing intimate images of her. While those charges were never proven in court, Usman says members of his family contacted her family and described specific sexual images of her allegedly captured by the hidden cameras.
The man pleaded guilty to break and enter and was handed a two-year sentence in February.
The incident prompted Usman to start a group with other women to tackle the deep shame she felt. The Shameless Circle brings together a wide variety of women who have experienced shame stemming from abusive relationships, mental health issues, exploitation, poverty and sexual orientation.
"It's actually reclaiming my honour that was sort of taken away from me," said Usman. "So for me, it's a huge deal, because through Shameless Circle I'm reclaiming that honour back and I'm hoping other women reclaim their honour back as well."
The group meets on Sundays in a downtown Winnipeg community centre to share their stories and offer support to one another. The Shameless Circle also offers self-defence classes and personal development workshops with experts who volunteer their time.
Most importantly for Usman, it has built a community for women who have been isolated by feelings of shame.
"We share, we give tips — so it's quite powerful," she said. "It's given me a lot of strength and actually the ability to move forward.
"It's important to me personally because it has helped me see other women who are in the same situation as mine, and being able to be the one who is sort of helping them, guiding them, has given me a lot of strength," Usman said.
The Shameless Circle
Keziah Toews recently joined the group. The 20-year-old university student immediately connected with the idea of being overwhelmed by shame.
"It's definitely been something that I let rule my life in a lot of different ways," Toews said. "I think shame can be used as a tool societally to kind of keep people in line.
"When we live shamelessly, we live more fully and we live more confidently," she said. "We're not constantly bashing ourselves or thinking about, are people bashing us?"
While the Shameless Circle welcomes a wide variety of women who have felt immobilized by shame, Usman said the group is committed to raising awareness about the impact that sharing intimate images has on victims.
"It's life-altering," she said. "You're actually taking their dignity away from them. You're killing their honour."
Lawyer applauds Usman's bravery
Toronto lawyer Molly Reynolds has litigated civil cases for victims whose have had intimate images published or shared without consent. She applauds Usman's decision to remove the publication ban on her identity, as well as her work with the Shameless Circle.
"I think deciding to be associated with this type of case and this type of misconduct is really brave," Reynolds said.
"There is so much power in deciding to put your name and your face beside this type of case and to stand up and say, 'I was wronged and this may be something that is embarrassing, but it's only embarrassing because of what that defendant has done to me and the fact that they have tried to humiliate me.'"
Reynolds believes groups like the Shameless Circle may do more than provide emotional support for victims of domestic violence and online sexual shaming. She said some of the information and experiences shared by the group could be used at an aggregate level in civil and criminal sentencing decisions.
"This could actually be a source of really good evidence about the variety of shared experiences of victims, and can really help people who may not be able, in an individual case, to prove a particular type of harm, by showing what types of general harm most individuals who have been the victim of this have gone through," she said.
A total of 279 charges were laid in Canada in 2017 for publication of intimate images without consent, according to data from Statistics Canada, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics and the Integrated Criminal Court Survey. In 2016, there were 54 charges.
But Reynolds said she believes the number of charges does not accurately reflect how many victims there may be.
A 2018 study by media literacy group Media Smarts found that nearly 60 per cent of youth who had received a sexually explicit image shared it with another person without consent.
"I think we can extrapolate that that's very similar for adults," Reynolds said. "So when we see numbers on the criminal side that are maybe only 280 cases a year being pursued, that's far short of potentially half the population either being engaged in the sharing of this content or receiving the content."
The circle expands
The fact that investigators never proved her ex-husband shared intimate images of her is a sore spot for Usman. She thinks police and the justice system need to be more responsive when victims come forward and that more needs to be done to track down intimate images shared electronically.
Usman still fears there are images of her out there that may resurface and said she is frustrated that she has no way to prove it and no way to track them down.
But while she struggles with those frustrations, Usman is trying to stay focused on helping others. She plans to expand the number of programs her group has in place and wants to see Shameless Circle chapters formed in other provinces.
"I see women smiling when they're going home and going away from that session, because they would just say that this was really powerful," she said.
If the publication ban had remained in place, Usman said she would always feel as though she had done something wrong. Now that it has been lifted, Usman is free to share her story publicly and on a larger platform.
"This is my way of telling other women that there is life after shame," she said.