Friday, March 8, 2013

Big questions on a big day

'Be the change that you wish to see in the world.' - Gandhi 

Today is International Women’s Day.

As a woman, a sister to a sister and a brother, a daughter to a mother and a father, a feminist, an advocate for women’s rights and someone who loves women and men, today is very important to me.

I feel incredible joy that I have had the opportunity to receive an education in two previously male-dominated fields, business and now public policy. I’ve had access to meaningful work and volunteer opportunities. I spent most of my twenties living in places where I could walk or bike around at any hour of the day or night safely.

I’ve enjoyed living and traveling alone and doing pretty much whatever I darn-well-please. 
My parents don’t care if I choose to have a partner or bear them grandchildren.
I don’t even consider my gender when getting into the driver’s seat of a car or casting a ballot.

A lot of the world doesn’t live this way. 
Even my grandmothers didn’t enjoy all of the freedoms that I do today.

I’m not saying that these privileges aren’t also things that every woman deserves or that I have never faced gender discrimination.
What I am saying is that I feel grateful for these privileges in light of our global context.

Now on to what this means for me today, on International Women’s Day. I believe that today is important, not just as a day on it’s own, but as a time to start reflecting and dialoguing on where we have come from, where we are and where we hope to go.

I say ‘we’ both in the collective sense and in the sense that ‘we’ are a world full of individuals. I believe that we too often make the marginalization of women and girls something that ‘someone else' does without first critically examining the role that each of us individually plays in a global system of gendered inequality.


Like many people living in South Africa, I have been thinking a lot about gender-based violence these past weeks. There have been two very high-profile femicide cases this month in South Africa. One involved a famous South African Olympic Athlete fatally shooting his girlfriend. The other was a gruesome gang-rape murder of a 17 year-old girl.

These two murders have pushed the issue of gender based violence in South Africa to the front of every newspaper, to the ‘breaking news’ on every newscast, and onto everyone’s lips – talk show hosts, university professors, discussion groups, the President in his State of the Nation Address… you get the picture.

Despite recent attention, gender based violence is not a new issue in South Africa. Every 6 seconds a rape is reported and every day, 3 women are murdered by her intimate partner. (South African Medical Research Council, 2012)

Despite being constantly on my mind, I have been hesitant to write about gender issues in a country where I am a foreigner.

I struggle with how gender inequality in the developing world is often portrayed and wonder if we often lose sight of the crux of the issue?

Patriarchy somehow becomes something that exists somewhere else, gender-based violence something that happens ‘over there’ and by ‘someone else’.  We don’t often critically examine how we interact with these systems in our own lives.

Here is an excerpt from a recent article in the Toronto star. While rightly covering an important and serious issue, I wonder what the writer was attempting with her sensationalism and finger-pointing.

‘As a woman in South Africa, you worry when you leave your house and you worry when you get home. You are never safe.
It is a violent, macho, testosterone-fuelled place. I visited for two weeks eight years ago and don’t want to go back. One bed-and-breakfast host pulled out a gun and another pulled out a giant knife. The hair on the back of my neck was in constant electric shock- mode. I felt safer in Pakistan.

What’s most worrying about South Africa’s violence to women is the general acceptance of it. Men are not ashamed of beating and raping women. Most husbands think that’s their right. And many women agree.’

Either way, Steenkamp’s gruesome story fits into the country’s damning narrative of men killing women. And in the court of social conscience, it provides yet another opportunity for South Africans to examine their misogyny.’

Not to diminish the writer’s experience, but does a 2-week visit to a country give an outsider the expertise to boil an issue down in the ‘court of social conscience’ to a country being full of misogynists?
I agree that gender based violence is a major issue that requires significant attention, but wonder what the international portrayal of a place as scary and woman-hating aims to accomplish?

Every day, week and month I spend here unveils more complexity in what previously seemed straight-forward issues to me.

Instead of focusing on gender based violence and the marginalization of women and girls as something that happens ‘in Africa’, ‘in THAT neighbourhood’ or ‘next door’, I think we need to take a deeper look at the issue instead of ‘other-izing’ it.

Protest against GBV at UCT

A few weeks ago I attended a protest at the University of Cape Town. Thousands of people attended, classes were cancelled and the vice-chancellor, professors and students took to the podium.
The vice chancellor caught me off guard.
He challenged us to question what we were protesting and to start by examining ourselves. To start by examining how we with our thoughts, actions and words play into a system of patriarchy.

This is much more difficult to do than to raise a fist against a monstrous perpetrator.

Horrendous inequalities between men and women exist all over the globe, in different ways and with varied severities.  Marginalization of women and girls exists in the very fabric of our societies and affects us all. So why do we so rarely examine our own actions and how they perpetrate an unacceptable status quo?

For me, International Women’s day provides us with a starting point to do this.

What about my actions?

I have engaged in small talk with other women and men about how a woman is dressed ‘too’ revealingly.
I have remained silent when others use condescending language towards women, or the word ‘rape’ to describe what happens on the sports field.
I have doubted myself and other women’s thoughts and abilities and normalized behaviours that are not acceptable.
I’ve silenced other women and undermined their experiences.
Although I have a significant amount of privilege, I don’t always use my voice.

I’ve blamed others without first exploring my role.
What I have done is not ok, even if society says so.
Today, I pledge to try to be better.

I believe that perpetrators of gender based violence and femicide SHOULD be held to account.  Issues should be discussed, debated and put in the news. Movements of individuals standing up against issues affecting women are powerful and I fully support them.

Within this, lets also try to do something powerful within ourselves:

Let us consider our love for each other, our love for women, our love for ourselves. And if we do indeed have that love, as I believe is natural in humans, let’s take a look at our actions.
How might we perpetuate a system that marginalizes over half of the world’s population and how we can interrupt it?

Let’s commit to doing better for the women we love and women around the world. And let’s start with ourselves. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Arriving in Cape Town: Broken toes, tin-can cars and how we inevitably journey forward

“Life goes on, unmindful of beginning, end…crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow, dusty caravan of kochis (nomads).” - Khaled Hosseini

I’ve been in Cape Town a few weeks now and have been very bad at keeping my commitment to start blogging again.

I usually choose my posts by picking a topic that has been prominent in my life, then writing about my thoughts surrounding it. This post is rather less profound and more an odds-and-ends overview of my arrival and and settling in here. 

After years of figuring out how to move here and 2 years of anticipation, to finally arrive seems like the most natural thing in the world. Things seem almost too easy after working and saving so hard for this next step. It seems as though moving forward sometimes happens with great intention and struggle. Other-times things happen so naturally that we barely notice our movement at all. 

Arriving in CT

I arrived in this stunning city, excitedly but without event or incident after travelling overland from Malawi (accompanied by my wonderful friend Ms. Bolen). What has happened since has been a natural progression in getting settled into a new life.

Beautiful Ms. Bolen at the Cape of Good Hope

One of the first things that strikes after the beauty of the city and the warm Rotary welcome, is that things are relatively easy for me here. Keep in mind that I’m living in one specific region of the Western Cape province, arguably one of the most developed areas of South Africa. I also carry a significant amount of privilege being an international student from Canada and through incredible support from Rotary. There is a lot of ease in my experience that many others in South Africa don’t have.
When I say ‘easy’, I mean that things seem to happen relatively on time and without struggle. Fuel is always available and water, power (for the most part) and internet are reliable. There is also an amazing selection of places to go and things to do, see and eat. I also haven’t encountered any language barriers.

View from the back porch

I have found a place to live for the time being. Although not ideally located near school or downtown, I walk out onto the street in the morning and look at a mountain looming in front of me. Sitting on the back porch, I have a stunning view of the ocean and the boats in the harbor. Pretty amazing!

In other news, I’ve bought a car. Although I’ve been driving for 10 years, this is the first time I own transport that is not a bicycle. 
I usually opt to bike, walk or take public transpo but this is a sprawling city and the public transport infrastructure isn’t great. After a year of nights sitting in gated compounds in Malawi or waiting on expensive taxis, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a cheap little hatchback 'tin can' to bop around town. 
Driving to the place where I’m currently sitting, I’m sure I stalled over 20 times, mostly on hills or in intersections. Driving manual takes some getting used to, but this is part of the learning process. I am keeping a little room in my budget for a new clutch :-P

Matimati (Chichewa word for 'tomato') and I :-P

I also broke my big toe a few weeks ago in a very under-dramatic fall.  Things are healing relatively well and I have learned that Cape Town and campus aren’t all that bad barefoot. In fact, I’ve noticed many able-footed bohemian types opting to go barefoot. 

Classes began a few weeks ago after a pretty intensive but uneventful registration process. Sitting in the first few lectures, I quite frequently felt my heart brimming over with joy.
We are talking about uncontrollable, eyes-welled-up type of joy here!
I am ecstatic to be back to school and in Cape Town. What a fascinating place and time to be studying. Looking around the classroom, I often get the feeling that some of my classmates will take on leadership roles and be part of the futures of their respective countries. 

Having been out of school for 6 years and having only studied business, this is all a bit intimidating. I’m worried about keeping up but am excited for new challenges, lots of learning and hopefully some growth thrown into the mix.  

Signing off broken-toed and happy!