Equality And Education: Teaching Women’s History

There is more than just one story, the history of women deserves to have its place in classrooms.

We are more than a special interests topic that you can take as an elective in a four year college. We are half the world. We have helped create the world we live and die in, and yet our stories go untold in high school classrooms across the world.

What does this show teenagers? That there is only one story that deserves its place in history books? That the perspectives and accomplishments of the patriarchy are the only ones worthy of teaching millions of children every single day? Do you not see that what we learn from our tenderest and youngest of years shapes our minds and turns us into the very beings who participate in public and private spheres? If a child, and subsequently teenagers and adults, only learn about the men of our histories, then that diminishes the equality, the accomplishments of women.

If the majority of the literature that we are taught in schools is from the canon, if women cannot identify or relate to the texts that they are assigned, then how can we progress? I remember feeling isolated and distant from the characters I read in books, was there no one like me? Am I not important? Are women not interesting? I am not saying that learning the works of Shakespeare, Wilde, Poe, Hemingway or Fitzgerald isn’t worthwhile, but that is an exceptionally narrow perspective of the world. And frankly, sometimes it’s a rather boring perspective of the world. There is a certain amount of shame felt when you read texts from the canon and you don’t understand or relate to them. It took me 10 years to realize that there was no shame in that. I can read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Jhumpa Lahiri and laugh, cry, love and smile page after page. I feel comfortable, I feel at home.

Joanna Russ, an American feminist writer stated rather poignantly in her essay, “What Can A Heroine Do?” that, “Culture is male.” She further supports her arguments by detailing how the canon and our Western literature follows a strict narrative form, common myths, and that when women are included, they are depicted as empty female archetypes. Russ then details the wonderfully titled “Bitch Goddess” archetype. The Bitch Goddess may not ring a bell by that name, but she has many incarnations for she is so very recycled. Bitch Goddess is, “a figure who is beautiful, irresistible, ruthless but fascinating, fascinating because she is somehow cheap or contemptible, who (in her more passive form) destroys men by her indifference and who (when the male author is more afraid of her) destroys men actively, sometimes by shooting them,” Russ writes.

So if history is dominated by white men and if our literature is overrun by female archetypes and male perspectives then it only makes sense for people to fear the voices of the oppressed. Why do you think people fear feminism? Why do you think women’s access to rights are constantly hindered? Why do you think women are paid less for equal work? Why do you think women are still expected to aspire to marriage and maternity? Why do you think women are demonized for their sexuality? Why do you think women don’t hold 50% of the political roles? Why do you think women are raped every single day?

Because as Russ said, “Culture is male.”

Women are not regarded as being equal to men because we are not taught that we are. Our culture perpetuates the myths and narratives that the patriarchy is comfortable with you absorbing. If you believe that women are weaker, dumber than you, then you don’t have to treat them with equal respect. If you believe that our world was built by men, then you don’t have to treat women like full human beings with inner-thoughts, personalities, dreams, ambitions, fears, quirks, secrets, habits, flaws, scars and stories.

It wasn’t until September 2014 that I started to really learn about the women who have helped create our society, the women who were brave enough defy the roles imposed upon them by their oppressors. I shouldn’t have only just found out about Noor Inayat Khan and her bravery during World War Two. I shouldn’t have only just leaned about Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and their fight for women’s right to vote. I should have been taught sooner about Audre LordeSojouner Truthbell hooksGloria AnzalduaEmma GoldmanMary WollstonecraftFlora Tristan,Adrienne Rich and more. Why wasn’t I? Because, “Culture is Male.”

I went to a reputable, private school in Geneva, Switzerland. Our education was diverse and thorough. I have considered myself a feminist for as far back as I can remember and yet I am disgusted that our curriculum focused almost entirely on the accomplishments of men. We were a nationally, ethnically diverse student body, yet approximately 90% of what we read was written by white men.

Women are not a special interests group. Students deserve to learn about women, read about women and read their perspectives. We cannot expect a progressive, feminist, post-racial society without teaching every student of the value of women and their contribution to the world.

It must become mandatory in every single school to teach students about the women who helped build our nations, helped nurture our cultures and move us forward into what we have today.

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Understanding privilege and ethnicity: A Personal Challenge.

 

(My parents on their wedding day, Nairobi, Kenya, 4 September 1987)

On paper, I am a minority. My mother is black: half Kenyan, half Indian. My father is white. My skin varies from being a light olive to 3-4 shades darker when I am tan. My hair is brown and naturally wavy-curly. My eyes are brown. I have somewhat non-caucasian features, but my heritage is pretty indecipherable.

On paper I am a minority, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that when you see me. I come from a upper middle class family, I grew up in Switzerland, I got to travel a lot and I speak fluent english and french. In person, I can perform whiteness. I portray European-ness. But I know nothing else.

For years I have struggled with my mixed ethnicity because I don’t feel either Kenyan or Indian at all. I visited Kenya multiple times, my mother regularly made us chapati and biryani and painted our hands with henna. But at school I hung out with my friends of whom 80% were white. I could eat hundreds of chapatis, but that didn’t make me feel more Indian. I could spend time with a Maasai tribe and bead colorful necklaces for tourists, but that didn’t make me feel more Kenyan.

I have struggled with my ethnicity because although on paper I am a minority, I wasn’t taught that I was. I wasn’t taught my mother’s cultures. I don’t know how to speak swahili or punjabi. This means that I cannot communicate with my grandmother and some of my relatives. I know little about being Kenyan or Indian, I have little in common with the maternal side of my family. My mother made me white, she denied me half of who I am.

This is a rupture of my identity. I only know my whiteness and I feel guilty about this. I hate that I can only perform whiteness.

I have been piecing together the ways in which my whiteness is a privilege, because understanding privilege is a good way to stop ignorance towards other minorities. Just because my mother is black does not mean that I have had the same experience as her. I cannot claim to understand the struggle of black women.

Learning about my privilege allows me to see the many incarnations of racism in the United States although it shelters me from experiencing systemic racism. The only forms of oppression that I have ever experienced are because of my gender.

I have however, experienced micro-aggressions based on my ethnic background, I have been told after I explained my heritage that,

“You’re lucky because you don’t look that black.”

Or the very common,

“You can’t be Swiss, you don’t look Swiss.”

Here in the US, people are sometimes uncomfortable when I reveal my non-whiteness or my Swiss nationality. All of a sudden I am not familiar, I am foreign, I’m not really American.

I am still absorbing the ideas of not quite identifying with my lost cultures but there are certain steps in my life that I would like to take in order piece together the bits of my life which I feel are missing.

In the following months and years I will be researching and reading about Indian and Kenyan feminism, I will read more literature from both too. I would like my ethnic background to help define my feminism. Who we are as people defines the goals we have and the changes we try to bring. Multi-ethnicity or bi-racial feminism is something that I am very excited to learn about and define for myself, and maybe some others too.

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Reflection on the murder of trans Filipina Jennifer Laude by a US Marine

 

October 17 was the Global Day of Action for Jennifer Laude, a Filipina who was murdered by visiting U.S. military forces in the Philippines.

Jennifer was a 26-year-old transgender woman killed by U.S. Marine, Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton on October 11 in Olongapo City. Mainstream media outlets immediately pulled out old slurs to create sensationalist headlines dehumanizing and blaming Jennifer for her own death. The exhibition of transmisogyny is easily captured in the vault of any internet news search on Jennifer’s death.  Read More »

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In India’s garment factories, stitching clothes and a culture of non-violence

Cross-posted from UN Women

Viyakula Mary speaks at a training session aimed at reducing workplace sexual harassment, at a garment factory in Tamil Nadu. Photo courtesy of SAVE.

Viyakula Mary was born in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She was first drawn to the issue of violence against women at the age of 16, when she heard that a member of her community had faced sexual harassment but had no prospect of justice.

Mary, now 39, works as a trainer for Social Awareness and Voluntary Education, a human rights organization based in Tirupur, a city in Tamil Nadu. She leads training sessions in six garment factories across the state aimed at reducing workplace sexual harassment. Her NGO is part of an innovative project focused on the garment supply chain that is led by Netherlands-based NGO Fair Wear Foundation, in partnership with garment factories in India and Bangladesh, European clothing brands, governments, civil society organizations and trade unions in Europe and Asia.

According to studies by Fair Wear Foundation, violence against women is widespread in India’s garment factories. Violence ranges from verbal and physical abuse to sexual harassment and rape.

A woman garment worker on the job at a factory in Tamil Nadu, India. Photo courtesy of Fair Wear Foundation

In the past, as was the case with violence in other social spheres, women were reluctant to report abuse. Mary says that in the factories where she has worked, very few effective mechanisms exist for women workers to report any kind of grievance. Women who faced violence also have so little faith in either the police or judicial systems that if a problem persisted, rather than pursue justice, they would simply look for alternative work.

In 2013, a new law, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, strengthened the legal protection afforded to women working in garment factories in India. To ensure the law is being implemented, Mary believes a holistic approach, including awareness and training, is needed.

As part of the initiative, the ‘Preventing Workplace Violence’ project, which is supported by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, 3,500 workers in India and Bangladesh have received direct training in 24 factories, while another 15,000 workers have been trained via peer-to-peer education.

Women garment workers listen attentively at a training session where they are empowered to speak up about workplace harassment. Photo courtesy of Fair Wear Foundation.

The training sessions range from three to six hours and are open to all workers, women and men, as well as management and supervisors. They’re conducted during working hours and participants earn at least minimum wages during that time.

“Management now takes quick action when a complaint is brought to them. In the past they would not even know what we were going through,” says a 31-year-old female factory worker in Tirupur.

After receiving initial training, workers are nominated to join the management and NGO representatives as part of a newly-established ‘Anti-Harassment Committees’. They meet monthly to address harassment cases. This group receives further training in communication and listening, problem-solving and decision-making to help resolve cases.

According to Juliette Li, a coordinator with Fair Wear Foundation, “lots of women accept sexual harassment because they don’t recognize it as such. And if they do, the factory manager doesn’t take it seriously. We want to create an atmosphere in which workers can talk to their bosses.”

Through the training sessions, women learn to discuss issues of violence and harassment more openly with supervisors and one another. Photo courtesy of Fair Wear Foundation

The project, which started two years ago, is showing initial results. The Anti-Harassment Committees established in the factories where Mary works hear approximately four reports a month. The initiative has lifted the lid on a problem rarely spoken about and empowered workers to also address other issues including workplace discrimination and labour rights.

By participating in anti-harassment committees, women have become more vocal on the factory floor. Whereas no women held supervisory positions in any of the six factories at the beginning of the project, five women have since been promoted to such roles.

“We are empowering women more and they are getting knowledge of all these related issues,” says Mary. “We could see after the trainings that the position of women is changing.”

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Indian Society’s Castigation of Rape Victims

rape victimIndia, often touted as the greatest democracy in the world, has an abysmal record when it comes to the safety of women. Crimes against women have increased over the years, and the country’s overburdened legal system has failed to provide justice to the victims. While Indians have displayed anger and frustration over the government’s ineptness and incompetence in ensuring the safety for women, there is a sizeable percentage of people who believe that it is women who are to be blamed for “inviting trouble.” They accuse the victims of dressing provocatively and inciting sexual offenders into committing sexual assaults. This attitude is typically exhibited by people who come from a patriarchal family system, and it is not only the average man who holds a rape victim responsible, even top police officers and elected representatives have publicly put the blame on them.

Women are well-represented in the contemporary Indian workplace; they are highly confident and competitive, to a point where some even openly subscribe to sugar daddy dating. But in spite of this seemingly liberal atmosphere, women are constantly subjected to one or the other form of harassment. Whether the discrimination is at the workplace or on the streets, the hard truth is that Indian women are not even safe in cities. In fact, New Delhi, the capital of India, is known for being extremely unsafe for women. It was in New Delhi that a young woman was gang-raped and brutally assaulted in a moving bus, and then thrown on to the streets to die. The incident shook the collective conscience of Indians, and invited large-scale protests; but sadly, the situation at ground level did not change much. Policemen, who are supposed to help women who have been sexually assaulted, often view rape victims as being of “loose character”. Reports of policemen further assaulting a rape victim or threatening them against filing an official complaint have often surfaced in the media.

Social attitudes towards rape often make some concessions for the perpetrator. Statements such as, “Men are always on the lookout for an opportunity; it is the women who have to be careful”, or “If she would have not gone out for that late-night movie, this thing would have never happened” can be heard often from those who claim to be the custodians of India’s ancient culture. Women who go out for parties and drink with men are castigated, and any complaint of sexual assault is deemed as manipulation or an attempt at blackmailing someone. A sting operation by Tehelka magazine caught a senior Delhi cop saying that women go to pubs to drink and have sex for money, but when someone uses force on them, they call it rape. (The rapes will go on’:  Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 15, Dated 14 April 2012)

When it comes to rapes, it is not only society’s reprehensible attitude that is a cause of concern; in some cases, kangaroo courts in Indian villages have ordered gang-rapes of women so that they can be punished for their ‘wrong acts’. By using rape as a punishment, women are forced to obey the archaic rituals and customs of society.

Although a lot is said about the flaws in law enforcement and in India’s judicial system, it is also important to take a hard look at ourselves and identify the flaws in our attitudes. As a society, we need to make some major changes in our outlook and see things the way they are. Our law enforcement and judiciary needs to be sensitized about the issue of assault on women. Once we develop the right attitude towards this heinous crime, we will be in a better position to fight against it.

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