Today is Malala Day, the birthday celebration of Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taliban shot in the head because she wanted to go to school. That was two years ago, and I am still moved by everything she does. It’s so easy to let life unravel in the face of horrible circumstances, and yet she kept going, keeps going. Her continued existence would have been enough to fight back. Going back to school would have been enough. But Malala skyrocketed, becoming an advocate for girls’ education and a role model for girls all over the world.
Her brave yet peaceful response to the Taliban, and to all who try to hold girls back, is a great lesson for our warmongering leaders, if they took the time to really listen to girls. She doesn’t fight violence with violence; she fights it with education and, more precisely, books. Check out this new video where she explains how books are stronger than bullets.
Malala just turned seventeen. My niece is going on fourteen, and the night before she came to visit us last week my partner and I watched The Punk Singer, the movie about Kathleen Hanna. It got me all fired up about making a mix CD for my niece. (Side note: since the 80s and 90s are back in, will kids start making mix tapes again? Pretty please?) My partner and I started talking about how so much of our values and world views came from the books we found at the library or borrowed from friends, the records we collected from thrift stores and out-of-the way shops, and the zines we traded when we were kids.
My feminist life, for instance, started when I cracked open The Bell Jar and discovered that someone had put my feelings into words. The Color Purple started me on the path to racial and economic justice. When I listened to “Rebel Girl,” Kathleen Hanna was the queen of my world. I devoured these books and records and then I learned about the women behind them, and I finally had an image of the kind of woman I wanted to be.
I wanted to create, to agitate, to express myself. Each book or record was like a window to what could be.
By the end of my niece’s visit, we walked out of a used bookstore, arms piled high with books and CDs. Malala had to face gunmen to get to books; we only had to stroll into a shop the size of a warehouse and take our pick.
Though we in the US are lucky to have access to free public schools, there are a lot of arguments about the state of education here today. Teachers have their hands tied by nonsensical standardized tests that leave children of color further and further behind. To make matters worse, attendance and performance here are affected by everything from street violence and school attacks to dating violence and bullying.
But there is one way we can help young people get at least a little of the education they need. For Malala Day, think about the things that helped you find your way when you were younger, that helped to define who you are today–a book, record, print, poem–and give a copy to a kid.
Books are #strongerthan bullets.
It was just last summer that Justin Timberlake released his song “Take Back the Night,” and we were like, oh, cool, a song supporting the Take Back the Night movement that’s been huge on college campuses and beyond since the early 70s!
Oops, no. Just a song about sex. Consensual, one hopes, but there are a few questionable lyrics, as it was the summer of rapey songs with catchy melodies.
JT said he’d never heard of the movement or organization until after the song came out, but he went on to approve of their work: “As I’ve learned more about The Take Back The Night Foundation, I’m moved by its efforts to stop violence against women, create safe communities and encourage respectful relationships for women — Something we all should rally around. It is my hope that this coincidence will bring more awareness to this cause.”
You know what would have been nice? More than a couple of sentences. Donating some of the proceeds. Partnering with them to make a serious statement against rape. Actually rallying around the cause.
We desperately need more men and boys working against sexual assault and other forms of violence against cis and trans women and girls. We need visible men like JT do visible work. We need men in music to encourage other men in music to write lyrics and make videos that condemn rather than condone violence against women.
Here’s a great example. One of India’s most revered metal bands, Sceptre, just came out with an album that focuses on the struggles of women in Indian society, including the problem of rape. The all-male band is celebrating their fifteenth anniversary with this concept album, Age of Calamity, and donating all proceeds to an orphanage for girls in Mumbai. That is how you pay more than lip service to a cause.
Drummer Aniket Waghmode said, “After my daughter’s birth, I could actually foresee how difficult it will be for a girl to move around freely, given the situation we are in as a nation.” In fact, men often become more concerned about gender inequality when they have daughters. But loads of musicians are still doing the same misogynistic stuff they enjoyed before they had daughters. Do they not realize that someday their daughters will be the very women they are dehumanizing?
But asking men to think about their wives and daughters, asking boys to think about their mothers and sisters: this is part of the problem. It seems fine, but this idea keeps women and girls as Other, not male, second-class. It keeps men and boys focused on how gender inequality affects men and boys–how it pains them to see their loved ones go through this; how they go without because their mother is paid less than her male counterpart; how they feel like failures because they couldn’t protect their daughters from rape–rather than how gender inequality affects actual women and girls.
What’s better is to encourage men and boys to think about themselves as women and girls, to imagine what it might be like if they themselves had to endure sexual harassment and threats of rape every time they left the house. If they had to take precautions every time they went out at night. This is empathy, and it reminds us that women and girls are humans with the same rights as men but very different experiences. With a little empathy, Take Back the Night goes from being a nice slogan “we should all rally around” to a much-anticipated reality we’re working toward.
Still, whatever Sceptre’s influence, they appear to be fully committed (though I’ve not analyzed their lyrics. Any discerning metalheads up for that?). I’d love to see more music flipping the script (score?) on gender and writing women as people with agency instead of mere objects. I’d love to see popular male musicians questioning sexist behavior that they always accepted as normal or harmless. Bystander intervention through music. I’m ready for that concept album.
The latest on Pussy Riot: Formerly imprisoned members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are coming to New York to talk about political prisoners for an Amnesty International event. Despite Putin’s attempts to silence them, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina remain unwavering in their commitment to social change. Journalist Masha Gessen’s recently published book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot is at the top of my must-read list.
More riot grrrls: Dazed has an excellent A-Z guide to the women who stomped through the 90s, from Allison Wolfe to zines. Love it. (That’s an expression of my love and a demand for yours.)
Art I’m into right now: Lindsay Bottos offers a clever, artistic response to gendered online harassment. ONOMOllywood, an exhibition from photographers Antoine Tempé and Omar Victor Diop, features iconic film shots re-imagined in Dakar and Abidjan. (It’s sort of an ad campaign for a hotel chain.) The photographs Ibi Ibrahim will soon be showing in the Art14 London Art Fair are a sex-positive response to conservative Islam.
From 6 minutes to 24 hours: Tired of being expected to play a terrorist, Iranian-American actor Jemilah King made a short displaying Hollywood’s narrow view and her much broader abilities. If you’ve got more time, the Global Lives Project curates a collection of films that “faithfully capture 24 continuous hours in the life of individuals from around the world.” It’s a work in progress devoted to cultivating empathy, and there’s a two-week unit for educators to use.
Creativity in places you aren’t looking for it but should be: Women’s World Summit Foundation is seeking nominations for the 2014 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life, emphasizing sustainable development, household food security, and peace.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the US, so I want to point you to some excellent creative work being done to change power relations in different parts of the world. King was adamant about recognizing how injustices around the world are connected, reminding us that the “destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.”
No matter where you are in the world, decide today to make your work less insular. Find similar groups in other countries, explore art from a different continent, and notice how the same themes resonate. Paying attention to what people are doing on the ground thousands of miles away can change the way you see your community, your work, and the world.
First, reconciliation through music! Drumming is traditionally a male activity in Rwanda, but twenty women, both Hutu and Tutsi, came together to form Ingoma Nshya, a powerful drum ensemble spreading a message of healing. These are women who lived through the Rwandan genocide, and they came to the group with no musical background. Now they play all over the world and have even performed in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo several times.
Next, Mary Sibande is a South African artist working in Johannesburg. Her mixed media installations feature Sophie, Sibande’s alter ego, a domestic worker whose fantasy world reveals the queen inside. In numerous countries, women of color are seen primarily as domestic workers, but Sophie shows us layers and depths that cannot be ignored. Full of life and energy, Sibande’s work demands attention, and Sophie’s shocking blue dress stays with me, as though printed right on the brain. I love them all, but particularly Her Majesty Queen Sophie and I’m a Lady.
Finally, New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas‘s paintings explore female identity and redefine beauty. Her colorful, pulsing work makes me want to dance, and, in fact, she did the cover art for Solange’s EP True. She’s inspired by the kind of women she grew up around, especially her mother, saying, “It’s what I know and what I respect—someone who believes in herself and stands her ground, who doesn’t act according to what society deems as acceptable and expresses herself, her sexuality, her femininity.” Thomas uses the afro to represent that kind of empowered energy and rhinestones to question beauty standards. I love her 2008 album; A Moment’s Pleasure Number 2 and Tamika Sur Une Chaise Longue are standouts.
So whose work are you celebrating today? What other artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, crafters, and the like infuse their work with themes of justice, equality, freedom, peace, and love? How are you growing your beloved community?
I have a guest blogger today! Elizabeth Wright is a social worker, musician, writer, and non-profit consultant based in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is the co-founder of KnowHow and serves on the board of Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee in addition to teaching grant writing at the University of Tennessee. Elizabeth previously served as the executive director of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation and the editor of Knoxville Voice.
Synchronicity is happening with the intersection of feminism and creativity: the same day Sara invited me to write a guest blog post, a reporter from the University of Tennessee’s Daily Beacon student newspaper requested an interview for an article she’s writing on women in music. I also just saw The Pinklets play a show, and was inspired by these three girls under the age of 12 who write their own songs, play their own instruments, and sing songs with lyrics like, “We are entitled to our own opinions” and “You don’t have to tell me I’m beautiful, it’s in my heart and soul.” Feminism, creativity, and discourse are in the air.
I have played music in loud rock bands for 18 years, and while I was comfortable singing on stage hiding behind a bass guitar, it took a long time for me to actually call myself a musician or to feel qualified to speak with authority on the topic. I suspect it’s the same for many women who clearly live with and think about issues related to feminism every day, but it takes a long time for some of us to call ourselves feminists or to feel comfortable speaking with authority about our own thoughts, lives, and experiences. Even if we are moved to speak out, there isn’t always a space where our voices are welcome and heard.
The same is true of anyone whose voice is quieted and who has to fight for equal access and power because of their sexual identity, income level, racial or ethnic background, religious beliefs, ability, or social status. Young people in particular feel the effects of all these forms of oppression and inherit a world that is built around structural inequality, but they often lack access to share their thoughts, experiences, and ideas, contributing to apathy, hopelessness, and disengagement. KnowHow is a new organization I cofounded with a thriving community of feminists, artists, musicians, and social justice advocates to support and empower young people in Knoxville to get involved and to be heard. Our mission is to support leadership development and community engagement among Knoxville’s youth, celebrating art and culture as vital tools to cultivate a deep sense of agency in youth, to amplify their voices as they engage with challenges that affect quality of life for all the city’s diverse residents, and to support them in forming lasting commitments to each other and the world at large.
In working to support youth, we also recognize the importance and necessity of working with and supporting the people, groups, and organizations that work every day to build and improve the healthy communities we all want to live in. One of our goals is to encourage young people to get involved with existing community groups and to facilitate intergenerational leadership that will grow and sustain a local culture of social justice, empowerment, and creative thought and expression.
Toward that goal, KnowHow is co-organizing a free event, “Understanding Place: A Community Dialogue on Race, Geography, and Home” on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center (124 S. Cruze Street). The workshop will provide an opportunity for Knoxvillians of all ages to explore how our city’s neighborhoods and communities have been shaped by local history, government policies, and radicalized development processes that continue to impact where we live today, who we count as neighbors, and the places we feel are “home.”
Urban renewal and gentrification have benefited some Knoxvillians over others, but many of us don’t know or understand how our sense of community is shaped by these dynamics. By coming together to learn from community leaders and each other about our neighborhoods and the places we call home, we will start the process of creating a space where diverse voices and experiences are heard, acknowledged and respected, an important building block toward creating healthier and livelier communities. We will also establish and embody a model for how KnowHow seeks to work with and support youth in Knoxville.
KnowHow will follow up with young people at and after the event to support them in researching their own neighborhoods’ histories and collecting and creating personal narratives of their families, neighbors, local business owners, and unsung community heroes and heroines. Their work and creative output will be the source material for a series of workshops throughout 2014, the KnowHow Sessions, which will delve deeper into underlying social issues they uncover and identify, supporting them in examining and sharing their experiences and ideas, and creating visual, performance, audio, and video pieces to share with the community. This work will ultimately create more opportunities for dialogue, education, and the amplification of quieted voices.
In addition to the KnowHow Sessions, KnowHow is also reviving Knoxville Girls Rock Camp in the summer of 2014 in partnership with the Joy of Music School. Rock Camp brings together girls in collaborative music exploration, encouraging them to pick up an instrument, work together, and be loud and proud in expressing themselves.
The music industry is just one aspect of a society that still sexualizes women rather than appreciates our intellect, that silences our voices or belittles our opinions rather than hearing our valid thoughts and experiences, and that denies women access to traditionally male-dominated fields. There is nothing more empowering than reclaiming spaces where our presence is typically denied or ignored and where others have defined our role and level of participation.
By supporting all young people in spaces where change can happen and by amplifying their voices through art, culture, and media, KnowHow seeks to improve quality of life for all the city’s diverse residents and communities. We hope to engage young people in creating the Knoxville we all want to live in together. We’d love to hear your voice, and we welcome your feedback, thoughts, and ideas. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s Take Back the Tech! action is about reshaping public space online. We want to recognize that much of this space is created and managed by women and there are many women who work hard to make digital spaces more welcoming for women. To that end, we’re asking people to highlight an inspiring woman in the tech or online realm.
I’ve chosen Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic whose blog Feminist Frequency deconstructs tropes associated with women in pop culture. I love how accessible her work is. There’s so much high-concept feminist analysis out there that’s valuable, but I really appreciate feminists who address what people are consuming daily and do so in a way that anyone can understand. Sarkeesian writes about movies, television, music, comics, and video games, with topics ranging from damsels in distress to non-violent iPhone games.
Sarkeesian faced serious harassment when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a Feminist Frequency video project. In addition to threats, insults and photoshopped images, someone created a video game that allowed players to beat her. But she was not deterred. She stood up for her right to exist and speak up in online spaces and is even more influential now. In fact, she ended up with nearly 7,000 Kickstarter backers and $158,917 to create her Tropes vs. Women web series.
Is there a woman in the tech/online world who inspires you? Spread the word. Mention her in the comments section and link to her work in your social media. Add or update her Wikipedia page (sorely needed since women are not equally represented on Wikipedia). Rewrite women into the digital story!