Saturday, October 11, 2014

New Voices

Two years ago, the United Nations designated today, October 11th, as the International Day of the Girl to promote awareness of gender inequality around the world. Fittingly, it coincides with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Pakistani activist for girls’ education,.
At school yesterday, a number of students organized a discussion on girls’ education around the globe. We met in one of the largest lecture halls on campus, but when I arrived there were barely fifteen people gathered in a circle.  More striking, there were only women.
I have been in similar situations, having intense conversations about women in the workplace inspired by Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In, or participating as an actor in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. Almost always, there’s a conspicuous lack of men. 
I’ll admit that I was initially prepared to resign myself to the circumstances. But, as a graduate student, I have found that we are not a group that settles. Almost immediately, one of my peers raised the issue—how disappointed she was by the absence of men in the discussion.  Another women jumped, “Here’s a way we can start acting right now.  Let’s go find some men.” 
And so, off went three of us, fanning out into the library and cafĂ© in search of men.  Unabashedly we went up to men sitting at tables working on problem sets and papers, men in the midst of conversations, men sitting in comfy purple couches reading books.  “Do you have 20 minutes?” we inquired. “Can you join this conversation?” we prodded.  “You don’t need to speak, but we believe it is important that men be part of the discussion.”
We soon traipsed back triumphant, five men strong.
The discussion that unfolded was just a beginning, but I at least felt that it was a genuine start.  Women spoke of teaching in all-girls schools, of differing expectations from families and communities, of experiences teaching women and girls overseas. Some of the men spoke too – of the need to celebrate men who support women and girl’s education (men like Malala’s father Ziuaddin Yousafzai who has championed girls education for years), of altering expectations of men that allow them to show weakness or caring or support for women without their masculinity being called into question.
The next step will be to decide what we can do.  How we can channel our activism and idealism.  But I walked away inspired all the same – and reminded that to start changing the conversation we need to actively invite people to join in. 

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