Friday, 31 January 2014

Put your hope in a hummingbird

It is with great sadness that I started writing this post.

Last week at work, I was asked to make a list of any VIPs or guests I thought should come to our three-yearly World Conference. I was thinking big. I was thinking inspiring. I was thinking of someone who has broken ground and made progress that no-one has ever made before. I went to write down the name of the person I find most inspiring in the world, and then, out of curiosity, even though I know almost everything about her already, I put her name into wikipedia. 

I’m talking about Fawzia Koofi. Don’t know the name? Well, I suppose there’s no reason for you to, unless, like me, you have an extensive interest in women’s rights activists or political figures in the Middle East. Christmas 2012 my dad bought me her autobiography. He said it might help me in my preparation for my upcoming trip to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York. That book was the first book that I’ve ever read that really touched my heart.

Fawzia Koofi was the first ever female Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament in the history of Afghanistan and was, as far as I was aware, running for the 2014 Afghan Presidency. Imagine that. In a country dominated by terrorists where girls and women experience some of the worst oppression in the world… I struggle to imagine what that even looks like. But for the last year it has filled me with excitement and hope like I cannot describe.

And that is why I write with great sadness. Because last week I found out that she is no longer a Presidential candidate.

Let me give you some context.

Fawzia Koofi was the last child of an impoverished, and already fairly large, family in a rural area of Afghanistan, born before the Taliban rule began. As a baby girl, she was rejected, and left outside in the sun to die. The family couldn’t afford another child, least of all a girl who would amount to nothing. Because that’s all girls were considered to be. Worthless. Unfortunately this is still a regular occurrence in rural parts of the Middle East and India. But let’s not dwell on that too much now.
After hours and hours and hours of desertion, when this new born baby girl was close to death, for some miraculous reason, her mother changed her mind. She defied her husband which would likely incur beatings and physiological abuse, she defied the criticisms that were sure to come from her neighbours and community and she defied what she had been taught to believe about herself, her other daughters and anyone who is ‘unlucky’ enough to be born a girl. She saved her beautiful new baby girl.

This moment has stayed with me above many others in the book. It proves everything that myself and many others I know and work with spend our lives proclaiming. If you value your daughter, if you educate her, if you believe that she will amount to more than society tells you she will – she has the potential to change the world. She will educate her daughters who will educate their daughters and suddenly you have a world where whole families are being lifted out of poverty and, most importantly, you have hope.

Just like her mother, Fawzia Koofi defied odds as she grew up. The chapters about when the Taliban rule first came into Afghanistan have opened my eyes in many ways. She affirmed for me the fact that women in Afghanistan weren’t expected to wear burkas before the Taliban came in. The Afghan people have suffered more than anyone else in the world from the Taliban, but especially Afghan women.

Since becoming involved in politics she has survived very many assassinations on her life…

I think, in my heart, I knew, and have always known, that Afghanistan is not ‘ready’ for a female President. If Fawzia was receiving countless, and regular, death threats and attempts on her life as a Speaker in Parliament, what would her chances be of surviving as President? She said herself in her book that maybe it would be best if she didn’t win.

I don’t know. It leaves a knot in my stomach. Surely we cannot bow down to the obstacles we face? Surely we should always aim for the very top? When so many girls and women out there are suffering from violence and discrimination every single day, surely the bigger our voices, the stronger we are?

But then, maybe hope doesn’t always look like we think it will.

Fawzia Koofi has inspired me in ways I can’t even describe. She’s become my role model. She has touched my life and made me believe I have the ability to change the world. She holds my hope of change in Afghanistan, and all over the world, in her hands.

So maybe it is better for her to continue as she is. Maybe she is never meant to be President because maybe, actually, this would deaden, rather than strengthen, her voice. With the weight of a whole country on her shoulders, would she still have room to fight for girls?

Maybe her progress is meant to be in smaller steps. Maybe it will take longer but maybe when she does rise up Afghanistan will be ready for her. The men who surround her in her parliament will have worked alongside her for years and have faith in her voice and leadership. They won’t feel threatened anymore. They won’t want her dead anymore. Maybe, for now, or even forever, she will influence the small people, like the father who sits next to her and sees, in her, a women’s potential for the first time. Maybe he then goes home and allows his daughter to go to school. Maybe being president is not the most powerful position she can be in.

Each and every one of us has the power to change the world, one small step at a time. Sometimes the way we can do this is not so obvious. Last week I saw a play about protesting and one of the biggest things I took away from it was that protesting is not the only way you can stand up for a cause. Maybe having a chat in the pub is more effective than standing in your town centre collecting signatures.

Real, long-lasting, sustainable change and progress is a journey. And it can be a long one. But often it needs to be if it’s going to last.
All we can do is keep fighting, in our own small ways.

Fawzia Koofi holds my hope in her hands, but so do so many other brilliant girls and women (and men!) that I am lucky to know. I see hope all around me.

Wangari Maathai tells a story of a group of animals watching their jungle burn down. They feel helpless, they don’t know what to do. They see a tiny hummingbird flying backwards and forwards dropping one small droplet of water onto the fire at a time. They tell the hummingbird that its effort is wasted, it will never be able to carry enough water to put out the fire, it should give up.
The hummingbird turns, and without stopping for even a moment, it says “I am doing the best I can.”

And now I’m not so sad anymore. Yes, being the first female president of Afghanistan would have been an amazing breakthrough, but, for now, it’s not to be. And, more importantly, I know that no matter who’s elected and no matter what happens in the future… Fawzia is never giving up. She is, just as so many of us are, doing the best she can.

"We can all be hummingbirds"

Illustration by Gary Hunt -

Helpful resources:
Wangari Maathai telling the hummingbird story much better than I ever will:
The book that touched my heart: 'The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future' - Fawzia Koofi

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Dressing for the occasion

Clothing policies are everywhere. Whether they are rooted in tradition, are for practical purposes or to give off a particular impression, many workplaces have a specific uniform, you are expected to not wear white to a wedding (unless you’re the bride), black is for funerals and you shouldn’t turn up to an important meeting with your CEO in trainers.

However, what happens when a clothing policy becomes oppressive and offensive?

I recently discovered that the sixth form my sister attends have introduced a new ‘clothing policy’. The sixth form is situated in an all boy’s secondary school and it turns out there had been repeated instances of boys making lewd and suggestive sexual remarks towards the sixth form girls. As a result, the headteacher informed the girls that they were no longer allowed to wear shorts as, presumably, he believed this would decrease the comments and solve the problem. The girls were not happy, a petition was started and, alongside highlighting other issues the students had with the sixth form, this was ignored.

I honestly didn’t even know where to start. My initial reaction was anger that an educational institute were choosing to ‘blame the victim’ instead of educating (I know, I’m not missing the irony either) the boys to view girls as more than just sexual objects that it was ok to shout lewd and suggestive remarks at. I am almost certain I can guess the headteacher’s thought process… “Well, boys will be boys.” And this is where I got stuck. This is why I haven’t yet written an angry letter to either the headteacher or the local paper. This is why I’ve been mulling this around in my head for the last couple of months not exactly knowing how to proceed.

For this is a much bigger issue.

Let me explain.

I work for a fantastic organisation that empowers girls and young women through non-formal education and a rights-based approach. One particular campaign we have is called ‘Stop the Violence: speak out for girl’s rights’. In March 2013 I attended the UN Gender Equality conference (UN Commission on the Status of Women) and the focus theme was ‘the prevention and elimination of violence against girls and women’. As you can see, our campaign fitted right in.
I was very lucky that I got to hear some amazing speakers and attend some truly inspiring events however the person whose words have stayed with me the most is Michael Kaufman. Yes, a man. A brilliant man. The fight to end, and ultimately prevent, violence from happening to girls and women, and for true gender equality, can often be a lonely fight for one particular gender. It can be seen as a woman’s issue. It can be seen as a load of angry lesbians screaming about how much they hate men. It can be seen as an opportunity to blame men. It can divide and it can create an ideology that women think they’re better than men. It can raise the question: “Violence happens to boys and men as well, why are you focusing on just one gender?”

Obviously I don’t believe any of the above, and the last comment is for another post, I don’t want to detract from the original point of writing this. But I do understand and I will explain later.

Michael Kaufman tore all of this apart. I wish every boy and man on this planet could hear him speak as I honestly believe he could create a shared understanding between every girl, boy, woman and man.
Michael Kaufman co-founded a charity called the ‘White Ribbon campaign’. It is an organisation of men fighting for the prevention and elimination of violence against girls and women. It is founded on the belief that gender stereotypes, gender roles and expectations and, ultimately, gender inequality are the root cause of violence against girls and women. Gender stereotypes and gender roles and expectations fuel gender inequality. In other words, the roles BOTH genders are expected to play, the specific qualities society has attached to BOTH genders and the limited expectations that exist for BOTH genders are the reason we live in a society that is not yet equal. A society where gender-based violence takes place.

However, how has this post gone from a ‘clothing policy’ in a sixth form to gender stereotypes?

Because – and this is really important – this ‘clothing policy’ is not just destructive, offensive and oppressive to the girls involved, it is also destructive, offensive and oppressive to all of those boys.

By creating this ‘clothing policy’ the headteacher is objectifying the girls. He is saying that they are only objects to be viewed in a sexual nature and by covering up the ‘temptation’ he believes he is limiting the amount of sexual object that will be viewed and therefore decrease the sexual remarks which are directed at this sexual object.
He is assuming the boys will only see these girls as sexual objects and therefore he is fuelling the gender stereotype that boys are only interested in sex and are incapable of interacting with the opposite sex in a respectful fashion, as another human being. He is creating an expectation that real men view girls, first and foremost, in a sexual manner and if they don’t, they’re not ‘real men’ or ‘lads’ (a disgusting phrase and stereotype I HATE but will save for another post). He is creating an entirely destructive environment for these boys which fuels disrespect of girls and, ultimately (and yes, this is a big statement), the belief that if a girl is bearing flesh she is ‘up for it’ and ‘deserves whatever she gets’.
And then we enter a horrible, but very real situation. The situation that says 83% of girls in the USA aged between 12 and 16 experience some form of sexual harassment at public school[1]; the situation that says that at least 1 in 4 girls and women in the UK will be victims of domestic abuse in their lifetime[2]; and the situation that says only 3% of rapists will spend a day in prison[3], often because the girl is reluctant to even report it in the first place. We don’t need a survey to tell us that society judges those harshly who report a sexual assault and had been drinking or wearing suggestive clothing.

We cannot allow this cycle to continue!

Objectification is all around us. Anyone of any age can walk into a newsagents, open a Sun newspaper and be greeted by a woman bearing her naked breasts, thereby fuelling the belief that women are just objects to be viewed in a sexual nature. This sixth form is an educational institute and it has the responsibility to be educating the girls and boys of today to be the responsible and accepting adults of tomorrow. This sixth form should be providing guidance to both the boys and girls that smashes away the limitations of society and teaches them that it’s ok to be themselves. It should be creating a society that refuses to support these stereotypes any longer and accepts everyone for who they are, regardless of how they act and what role they want to play. It should be empowering the girls to know they have the right to wear whatever they want and it NEVER gives a boy or man the right to rape or hurt them or view them as just a sexual object. And it should be empowering the boys every day to believe that they are capable of real relationships, that to be accepted as a ‘real man’ they don’t have to view girls as just sexual objects and that it’s a form of violence and abuse to shout unwanted remarks at girls. Or, in fact, at anyone.

Real men don’t hurt girls and women, they respect them as equals. Real men can have true meaningful relationships – I know, I’m with an amazing man (and a great feminist). Real men don’t have to sleep with lots of different girls and never call them back, especially if this is not consensual. Real men don’t honk their car horns at a girl and real men give girls the opportunity to say ‘no’, every step of the way. And real women allow boys and men to break out of these stereotypes without judgement or assumption.

And that’s what we should be telling the boys as they grow up, regardless of what clothes a girl is wearing. Otherwise we are already limiting them and destroying their chances of being the best men they can be and reaching their full potential.

Related links:
WAGGGS’ Stop the Violence: speak out for girl’s rights campaign:
White Ribbon Campaign (UK branch):
Doc Brown on ‘No More Page 3’, a fantastic campaign to end the objectification of women in the Sun newspaper:
Extended trailer to ‘Miss Representation’ documentary (how the media influences the way young people in the USA view men and women):