We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
It surprises me how proud I can feel of my students and the work that they have done. It is not your own, and it’s not a pride derived of ownership or selfish success, but there is a deep swelling of the chest when you watch the ones you’re rooting for succeed. The past two months have marked a series of amazing events in women’s empowerment that I couldn’t have been happier to participate in. Seeing these women take charge, take chances, and tackle issues has been the most rewarding experience. From private readings, to community-wide conferences, to flash mobs for awareness, they’ve kept us on our toes this semester.
Since January, I’ve been a teaching assistant in a Women and Auto-ethnography course. The girls have been tackling the challenge of conveying their stories with an eye towards making larger cultural, political, and social. The writing is challenging; it’s neither purely autobiography nor ethnography. The trick is to tell a narrative that captures the reader in a way that engages them, barely allowing them to realize that they are actually learning about wider societal issues from your story. A large part of the goals for this course is to help the student’s begin to feel comfortable sharing their stories and speaking up about their experiences.
A few weeks ago, Jason, our professor, arranged for a reading to be done at Bishaut Bangla, a local arts and community center. About eight brave students agreed to read their works. We collected in front of the university gates and nervously giggled our way over to the center. The reading was held in a small, intimate room, leaving no chance for the girls to ignore the audience practically sitting on top of them. While I took up my position in the back, a group of lanky, awkward Bengali boys stumbled in and crowded onto the floor in front of the girls. Their more composed, stately fathers lined the back. I looked around nervously, there were a handful of girls from the university there to support their peers, but the small audience was largely composed of Bengali men. I wondered how they would receive a collection of eight stories about what it is to be a young woman in society today. I wondered whether our giggling girls would be able to compose themselves and convey their stories as powerful women. But after the first few students began to read their stories, quivering at first and then building strength, I realized that the audience was surprisingly engaged and receptive. By the time the fourth student knelt in front of the audience to read, she belted her opening line proudly: “My body has never embarrassed me.” Dressed in a shocking orange and fuchsia salwaar kameez, she stood out a midst the sea of black men’s blazers, her appearance matching her bold statements. The girls took their turns in front, telling the audience what it felt like to lose a cousin, to be a girl in a physical education class, to learn English, to decide to leave your country, to experience freedom, to struggle for education, and to have all the weight of your mother’s dreams upon you. They were all at once hilarious, heart-breaking, brave and shy. At the end of the reading, the owner of the center led the audience in a Q&A session. One of the adolescent boys in the front raised his hand shyly and said, “You girls are an inspiration.” My heart melted as the girls broke out in smiles. Mission accomplished. I realized that I had both underestimated our male audience and the ability of our students to articulate their messages in a powerful way.
Several weeks later, a project that had been in the making since last semester finally came to fruition. Since last fall I, along with another teaching fellow and a professor, had been advising a group of girls who wanted to raise awareness about violence against women. The project started as a vague idea, but slowly the girls began to give it shape, draft a proposal, and present it to the chancellor. They certainly faced a large amount of discouragement, organizational setbacks, and struggled to define their ideas, but with only minimal guidance from us, they eventually put together the “Speak Up Against Violence Against Women,” conference at AUW. Inviting activists, professors, media and university students from the Chittagong area, they were able to successfully organize a speaking panel and interactive workshop groups.
While the conference was successful, it also brought out a lot of frustration and gender-related issues that the girls face every day. Among the many male participants, few seemed to really have a grasp on gender sensitivity or to even ever have contemplated issues such as rape or sexual harassment and how to solve them. Unfortunately, some of the male participants felt the need to voice hurtful or even unproductive opinions, along the lines of girls needing to wear less provocative clothing and other common victim-shaming ideas. Feeling down and out after hearing these views, we all started complaining and venting. But while the conference had its own problems, it was nothing if not realistic. These kinds of attitudes and opinions reflect the reality facing women activists the world over, not just in Bangladesh, and in the end, it was productive for the girls to see what kinds of challenges they will be up against as young women seeking change on controversial, taboo subjects in their communities.
The rest of the month involved marches and flash mobs to promote awareness of violence against women, all as a part of the One Billion Rising campaign leading up to V-Day as part of the overall campaign of the Vagina Monologues movement. Perhaps the most inspiring and entertaining event of the month, was AUW’s performance of the Vagina Monologues itself. After several months of working closely with the girls, Meghan, our fellow World Teach volunteer, sat back and watched her prodigies let loose on stage. Our jaws dropped as we saw girls who could previously not even say the word “vagina” without extreme discomfort, belting out uninhibited renditions of various sex moans on stage. Their performance of the monologues was real, honest, inspiring and so empowering, not just for them, but for those in the audience as well. I have to admit that I myself, could not have stood in front of an audience and recited some of the very vagina-oriented monologues that the girls did. I can’t really explain the huge amount of appreciation I felt, however, watching others embrace their “womanhood” without fear or embarrassment. In some way, it pardoned the rest of the audience from having to do the hard work of turning something that often gets framed as secretive, shameful, and inappropriate in many cultures into what it truly is: a natural, beautiful power that comes along with being a woman.
I think it’s safe to say, that this year, and especially this semester has been one of the most rewarding experiences. As we start preparing for our last month at AUW, I can’t help but already get nostalgic for the huge amount of personal growth, strength, support and inspiration that I’ve received from all of the amazing women around me.