08 March 2014

International Women's Day - a memory

This post is a bit of a one-off departure for me and the blog, but as it's International Women's Day today, I would like to share an experience of mine from 11 years ago that I have never written about. The day after the experience I'll outline below, I typed up an emotional response on the computer in my high school art room and intended to share it with people who might be interested, but somehow it was lost.

Politics and 'causes' are things I can get behind when I feel strongly about them for one reason or another, but I am not an activist of any sort, nor do I label myself as much of anything, really. I could probably be criticized for living in a little self-absorbed happy-bubble, and maybe that's true, but not all of the time. Sometimes headlines grab my attention, or the overarching political climate is such that there are things that cannot be ignored. Lately, in terms of gender equality and news in Britain, there has been an increased outcry against female genital mutilation. It made me think how the appearance and manifestations of sexism and gender inequality change over time, and how many factors contribute, making it so complex. Religious or cultural traditions complicate matters so much, let alone throwing the political angle in there. But March 8 always reminds me of an experiment I participated in, in high school, at the impressionable age of 17.

I use the word 'impressionable' carefully because although I see myself now as having been immensely impressionable, what occurred that day demonstrated how easily (and how deeply) news stories, cultural biases, and the attitudes of others (especially adults) are perceived by young people.

So here's the story, which I've never, since then, laid out or really reflected on publicly, but it shaped my view in many ways and continues to influence my worldly perceptions.

I was one of about four or five students in my high school Amnesty International club. In our tiny north-midwestern corner of the world, we were (as we wanted to believe) valiantly fighting for human rights, often by consulting Amnesty's bulletins and causes and finding something we thought we could raise awareness about. This was probably 2003 (I'm a little fuzzy, and thought maybe 2002, but that seems too early), and was of course within a couple of years after 9/11, and the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq had escalated immensely. Anti-war protests cropped up on street corners. It was in the news constantly. As high school students, I doubt the majority of us ever sat at home watching the evening news, but we heard bits and pieces, we were obviously aware of events through discussions in social studies classes and with teachers, and also from our families.

One of the aspects of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which became relevant to our Amnesty group as International Women's Day rolled nearer, was their treatment of women. Images of this oppression were common in media sources, of groups of women wearing what looked like blue sheets which covered their entire bodies, called burqas, sometimes ornately embroidered, with perforated fabric on the faces so that they could see and breathe, but which was still opaque enough to hide their faces completely. The issues surrounding the burqa are complex, as these issues always are (such as, what if a woman prefers to wear the burqa? or what if it's banned as opposed to unenforced? controversies still abound over the niqab and hijab in many places, particularly those where the burqa is seen as something 'foreign' and misunderstood). For the Taliban, however, enforcing the burqa, suffice it to say, was an immensely simple, powerful method of dehumanizing women and the garment became an instantly recognizable symbol of oppression.

So the girls in our club decided to fashion our own burqas and wear them to school on International Women's Day to raise awareness in our school about the treatment of women under the Taliban. If this sounds like a loaded thing to do, it was.

For a couple of weeks we met after school to sew our burqas. Other than photographs from the internet, we didn't really have much to go on. Mine consisted of a light blue bedsheet with a hole cut out around the face into which I sewed a piece of fine screen. It was rough-hewn, yet unmistakable. A couple of teachers got in on the act and helped to distribute informational posters in order to educate students about what we were doing and the message we wanted to convey. When March 8 rolled around, the school office made an announcement to inform students of what we were doing, and that we would not be speaking unless we were asked specifically to explain what our aim was. No one knew who we were; we had told no one what we were planning. People eventually figured out, as the day went on, when I sat in an assigned seat in class for example, but I still had the overall effect of anonymity, especially walking the halls between classes, which proved the most interesting of all.

As a 17 year old, your social connections are of the utmost importance. You get a read on people; you think you know who people are. My cohorts in this operation all went about our day without much contact, so we weren't in a pack, therefore each of us had our own stories to tell. I walked into the school in the morning, right into the large common area where kids liked to hang out before class, and I was subjected to immediate abuse. Students I was normally very friendly with started shouting 'Osama!' across the cavernous room. Things like 'Go back to Afghanistan!' were laced with profanities. I was immediately confused by all of the messages I was both sending and receiving. It took about five minutes to realize this was going to have a bigger impact than my naive 17-year old self had expected.

Obviously the burqa was out of context, but it was challenging what other students were accustomed to seeing in their school which was primarily white and Catholic. 'Diversity' was not something it could claim convincingly. Students knew I was a woman because they had seen images of similarly dressed women in the media. They associated the burqa with Afghanistan and the Taliban, but to varying degrees and with different understandings of its significance. And what did it have to do with women? That's what we wanted to get across, but it was clear it was not going to be straightforward. People choose what they want to hear and believe. They didn't know who I was, but they didn't care.

Students whispered obscenities and harrassed me all day long. I was met by dirty looks from people I liked. Another participant in a burqa had books dropped on her from the upper level of a stairwell and we all shared similar hurtful experiences. At first, it was easy to tell myself that I was 'playing a role' but it became clearer as the day went on that the confinement of the burqa and the lack of respect from others was something that the women we were representing had to deal with every single day. Of course, every moment I was reminding myself not to take it personally. They didn't know who I was. "If they knew it was me, they wouldn't be acting like this," is what I told myself.

Not everyone, of course, 'acted stupid.' The spectrum of reactions was broad. In some classes, teachers ignored our presence and class went on as usual whereas in a couple of others, my teachers used the opportunity to speak to us and directly engage us with the rest of the class so that we could explain ourselves. I imagine a lot of people were too shy to ask because of our concealed identities. And some people who perhaps I assumed would be closed-minded turned out to be the most open-minded of all. So really, our little school was probably something of a microcosm, a little cross-section of society in general. People interpret things they don't understand in very different ways. Most people glanced at us curiously and walked by, going about their normal business. For those who had paid attention to the information we had given out, perhaps they simply understood the issue we were trying to represent.

But did we really know what we represented? We relied on the informational posters, leaflets and announcements to clue students into what we tried to say, and explained as best we could. In retrospect, I was probably as confused as everyone else, just from a different perspective. We were trying to bring women's rights to light, but we had both knowingly and naively, in different respects, opened a big can of worms. I imagine a sociologist would have had a field day with this experiment with all its levels of political and cultural misunderstanding in a school environment, wrapped up in the trappings teenage behavior. I didn't understand it then, and I don't totally understand it now. I was emotionally demolished by the end of the day. I went home and cried.

The next day our identities were revealed to many and the discussions continued on a more personable level. And that touches on the main point, that of the concept of being a person. I learned so much more about interactions between and attitudes about people as a result of that one bizarre and crudely-executed experiment than I have ever learned since, at least in such a condensed way. We don't usually get those opportunities to see life from the other side of the fence and I've perhaps carried the benefit of that opportunity with me through the years.

Ostensibly it was about women's rights during a specific time period and in a specific environment, and in some sense we got the message across, if a bit garbled. The larger issue was not just how those women were treated, but how women are objectified in society in various ways. The dehumanizing effect of the burqa was the most surprising thing of all. I became, literally, an object with no identity or feelings, onto which people could launch their harshest criticisms and nastiest looks with no consequences. But I think I need to remember that that's my culture. I don't know anyone who wears a burqa and I've not been raised in a society where this is the norm, so of course it was going to have a psychological impact on me based on my own perceptions and background. Context was more important than I could understand at the time.

If circumstances were the same, would I do that now? No. But it was an experience of a lifetime that I will never forget. Feminist issues are ever-changing, especially in our ever more global society. And these issues are rarely one-sided; more commonly they are complex and intertwined with many others. In the end, it was far more of a lesson for me and my fellow participants than it was for the school at large. It taught all of us about genuineness and compassion, but it also taught us a lot about prejudice and what people choose to hear and latch onto, whether it's a particular news source or authority figure or their parents or their friends. We learned about the 'other sides' of people whose beliefs impact the way they treat others. At 17, I was taught about the complexity and multi-sidedness of these large issues, but even more about myself, interpersonal relationships, and how big change starts small.

Feel free to (please!) leave feedback or thoughts on this or what International Women's Day means to you.

All the best,

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