On International Women’s Day I noticed on my Facebook newsfeed a lot of celebration of women from developing countries, and countries that have had a history of oppressing women. The photos show women who have raised themselves up and rebelled for the sake of their daughters and sisters, and taken on daring roles in their community. As a Westerner, and a feminist, I just soak it up because the challenge against patriarchy is so blatant. Here we have a form of patriarchy towards women and girls in a country where men of extremist beliefs try to oppress them by denying them access to education, opportunity, and the right to voice their hopes, in the name of religious dogma. Essentially, this is a human rights violation and it is obvious. It is such a relief to celebrate the accomplishments of these women because they truly are brave and courageous.
Meanwhile, in Western countries where education, opportunity and freedom of expression are taken for granted, we live in an era of entitlement, where fame overrides a sense of dignity and integrity. Patriarchy is hazy, vague, and devious. Freedom is packaged in an attitude of being able to do whatever you want to do, without having to be hindered by a broader picture or any sense of long-term repercussions for yourself or the impact your behaviour has on others. The results are hideous. We have pre-teen popstars baring themselves on stage, luridly provoking their audience, and this is called an act of empowerment. No one is being empowered. Yes, the popstar receives thousands of tweets, followers, a viral video and fleeting social networking notoriety, but for what? There is no rebellion here, no raising up of a community, and patriarchy still wins.
Sadly, our Western communities still battle with human rights issues despite these so-called mainstream freedoms. The worst violations revolve around the treatment of our First Nations people (in both isolated northern communities and in the city centre), with the horrible reality that Aboriginal women are going missing and are murdered at a rate much higher than the general population. Our Government writes reports and now acknowledges this situation, but the stories on International Women’s Day regarding First Nations women were limited to Amnesty International calling out for justice.
The most beautiful photos on my newsfeed came from Skateistan, the non-profit organization that began in Afghanistan as an opportunity for street children to have fun by learning skateboarding, and then catch up on schooling so that they could re-join the public school system. Skateistan was adamant that there be equal opportunity for both girls and boys to participate (with a participation rate of 40% female skateboarders)! The program has been a massive success because there is no history of skateboarding in Afghanistan as a gender-specific activity. Skateistan opened an additional school in Afghanistan, as well as new programs and services in Cambodia and South Africa. The photos of smiling girls with their skateboards, taking risks, showing their mothers what they can do are absolutely heart-warming.
But then reality hits me again. Would such an outreach program be successful (for both boys and girls) in a First Nations community in Canada? I feel like the answer is no. And, I wonder if this has to do with a longer history of systemic oppression that has resulted in vicious cycles of drug addiction, alcohol addiction, suicide, and abuse. These heavy elements strip people of hope and the desire to fight to improve their lives. There are certainly bright shining stars, like an 11 year-old First Nations girl I read about named Valyncia Sparvier who decided to do her class speaking assignment on the issue of Missing & Murdered Aboriginal women. But the root of the problem is still there, being racism and sexism. And what the country of Canada needs to do is create more opportunities for such beautiful children to speak out and empower themselves and their generation. Hand-outs are pointless.
I’m relieved to see events in Vancouver like the “Round Dance: In honour of Women Warriors” hosted by the rape crisis centre, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) on March 21st. Even though I will always be an outside observer in the First Nations community, I still have a deep sense of compassion combined with a deep sense of shame in regards to Canada’s history. While I will never deny the amazing power of what Skateistan is doing, I would just love to see a big mob of Aboriginal children doing something similar and saying a big ‘screw you’ to the cycle of violence and hopelessness that has overwhelmed their community. I pray that this will be a reality very, very soon.
In regards to the underlying (and equally sinister) patriarchy in Western countries, that is essentially a rape culture, I would love to see a backlash by young women that actually embraces celibacy. There are way too many opportunities for predators to pursue vulnerable girls and young women online (I know this as a result of my foster niece being aggressively propositioned on Facebook). To combat this trend, girls should be taught that their body is theirs alone, and when the media tries to twist this by implying that their body is theirs alone to exploit for so-called “power” – it should be recognized as an absolute lie. A girl’s body is strong, capable, and precious no matter what shape, form or colour. And if a boy or man tries to manipulate this belief and suggest that a woman’s value is based upon catering to their sexual whims and temporary gratification or “connection”, they are not to be trusted. A man must earn a woman’s trust to experience intimacy because this is truly sacred territory.
I can’t deny that sex doesn’t sell. The pre-teen popstar sells. But then she has nothing left. There is no mystery, no dignity, and nothing to cherish. In some ways I believe that women in countries who have experienced great oppression know this the best. Westerners might think that they are bringing feminism to the third world, but I believe that the reverse is actually true and we have a lot to learn from these women about self-respect. Essentially, if you have a daughter, niece or sister would you hope that they choose Miley or Malala as a role-model? I may not share Malala’s faith, but her strength and vision are light years ahead.