Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Gender Issues, part 3 - Girl Rising, Rape Culture, Modern-Day Feminism

In case you missed them, here are parts 1 and 2. And here's a direct link to the Gender/Social Health board on Pinterest where we've been posting more resources.

Long story short, about a year ago, I spent the day with a small group of middle school-age girls, and I overheard something that I wish I hadn't. "It isn't rape if you like it," one casually tossed out there, while laughing about something completely unrelated. Giggled responses. Horrified me. I froze... shocked. Did that really just happen? Did she say what I think she said? I was paralyzed. And what's worse? I said nothing.

Girl Rising
Fast forward a year. The full dive into issues of gender stereotypes, media portrayals, advertising, "slut shaming,"victim blaming, and rape culture has left me reeling. I am a feminist...I'm not ashamed to admit it. As I mentioned in part 1, my gender undoubtedly brings bias to my writing because this is the point of view through which I experience the world. I am raising two daughters, so I care deeply about the way they see themselves and the way the world tells them they should see themselves. I am perpetually aware of the influence I have in this department, and I am doing my best to set a good example (FYI, it's extremely HARD). Opening the fire hose of information that is the internet makes it hard to slow things to a trickle and speak or write clearly on one particular topic. There are so many branches and paths to follow! But here is where my mind has wandered lately, what I've watched, read, or listened to, and here's what I have learned along the way. I realize my parenting style is different from others, and everyone needs to make the best choices for their families. You are the ones who know your own children best, and you wish to instill in them the values you hold dear. I only share my experience in the hopes that it might help make a few difficult conversations a bit easier to face. I also selfishly need to write this down so I can learn from it.

With a huge desire in my heart to raise two strong and confident girls, I took them to see Girl Rising, a documentary film that highlights the lives of 9 different girls from different countries around the world, and the struggles they endure to simply get an education. We come from a world of extreme privilege by comparison to their stories, and I wanted my girls to value more strongly what they are blessed to experience each day, and to get a glimpse of what life is like for girls in other parts of our world. Trailer below:

The film is rated PG-13, and contains some difficult material. But I made a personal decision that this was information--the reality of our world--that I didn't want to shield from my own children. I was overwhelmingly moved by the girls in the film, declaring each successive mini-biography to be "my favorite" as the film progressed. What courage and spirit these girls showed! What unimaginable things they suffered. What lengths they went to for the opportunity to learn and make their lives better. What sacrifices their families made for them. It was utterly awe-inspiring.  I knew there would be references to rape and violence as these crimes are nearly unescapable for girls in some countries. I appreciated the way it was handled in this documentary project...truthfully, yet with sensitivity.  One girl from Nepal, Suma, tells a tragic tale of being sold into bonded labor at the age of six. As she revisits her past and the many homes in which she was forced to work, she simply says, "I cannot talk about everything that happened to me here." The audience is left to fill the silence with our own conclusions, and she doesn't have to relive her childhood horrors to make an already dramatic story more so. It was beautifully done, supplemented with powerful statistics to drive the point home.
There are 66 million girls who are not in school; 14 million girls under 18 who will be married this year; and 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence each year. (AP)
Amina, Afghanistan
Could my children, ages 10 and 12, imagine a life like young Amina? Being forced into marriage with an older man at the tender age of 11? Giving birth to her first child at the age of 12? What a completely foreign concept to all of us. It hurt my heart just to think about it.

And then there was Yasmin.
“He was strong but I was stronger.” A young Egyptian girl falls prey to a violent attack but, rather than become a victim, she becomes a superhero. Yasmin’s is the story of the triumph of imagination over a reality too painful to bear. (Girl Rising)
Yasmin's story captivated my youngest daughter, because it was told in sort of a graphic novel format,  à la Persepolis, where she becomes the hero in her own tale, explaining her rape to the police officer with the words, "He took me to the dark place." She leaves it at that. Only in her tale she emerges triumphant over her attacker and refuses to see herself as a victim.

Upon debrief the next evening, that particular scene needed clarification. "Mom, what happened when the man touched her shoulder and took her to the dark place?" My daughter knew there was more to the story, but she didn't understand it.

Oh we go.

How do I explain rape when I haven't even officially had the sex talk with my child? I thought to myself. I was already several weeks into my own personal "Gender Issues" study, and I was fully immersed in it.  Steubenville... The Invisible War...the Violence Against Women Act up for reauthorization...Audrie Pott...Rehtaeh Parsons... misogyny... patriarchy... objectification... sexualization.  Where do I begin? I wanted to address the overall theme of women's rights and gender equality, sharing information that would be helpful but not overwhelming. After all, I was actively looking for these stories, not just accidentally happening across them, and the girls certainly did not need that level of exposure. But this simple question from my child was a sharp slap in the face of all the things they DIDN'T know yet.

Now, don't get me wrong. They weren't completely in the dark. I had doled out what I thought was age-appropriate information throughout their childhood. We've done the birds and the bees and the "hit parade of puberty" as we learned about it in our first experience with Julie Metzger of Great Conversations. (I cannot recommend these classes enough!) We've talked about feelings, actions, and consequences.  But I knew that to answer this question, we were going to have to acknowledge and address the dark side of sex (and power and control). And I certainly didn't want that to be the only thing we talked about. So I took a deep breath and dove in, answering the question as simply as I could.

"She was raped."

"I don't know what that means. What is rape?"

Here began my attempt to explain Yasmin's story, Suma's story, and tragically, the story of far too many girls and women in our world. What is rape? It is the sexual violation of a person against her/his will. Without her/his consent. It is a horrifying violation. It is about power, not sex. Of course, this naturally led to (or began with) more questions and answers about what sex is, what it can and should be, how to know when you are ready, what to do to keep yourself safe, why do people have sex in the first place? Lots of curiosity...brilliant opening of a door.

Maybe I overshared, but I used the opportunity to address the Steubenville case, which they HAD seen on the news. I could go on and on about my disgust with the media coverage, but I simply explained to my kids that the victim in that case was a girl who was violated against her will, that other people stood around and laughed and photographed and texted and shared the crime committed against her, and did nothing to stop it. I talked about the concept of consent, and how no one ever ever EVER has the right to do something to you without yours, but that is certainly one topic that will come around again and again. And again.

I went off the rails a little bit, I'll be honest. I seized an opportunity to talk with my children in the wake of an emotional experience the three of us had together. Girl Rising shed light on many things we didn't know before, and ended up teaching me an awful lot about myself in the process. Our eyes were opened more widely to things we hadn't deeply considered before.

The point of the film is to highlight the importance of education for these girls, and for all the 66 million girls in the world who don't get to go to school. "Educate a girl, change the world" is the slogan. In spite of the depressing statistics and the darkness and hardship faced by many of these girls (those in the film and many more around the world and even in our own country) the overall message is one of great hope. Educating girls lifts up entire communities.

As one reviewer wrote:
Education is the engine of change for impoverished girls all over the globe. Schooling is to the mind as food is to the body: an essential source of nourishment and growth. This is a message of hope as well as of responsibility. We are the world. These girls are not separate from us. They speak to us directly in Girl Rising, and if we hear them, we will find a way to help them realize their vision and their dreams. (Moody)
All of us need educating. I need educating.  I think back to that experience a year ago and I wish I would have said something. I don't really know why I didn't, I have no idea what I would have said, and I'm fairly certain it wouldn't have come out right. But I still regret my silence. I feel more capable and confident having that difficult conversation now. I have educated myself more. I won't let it go next time.  Sexual assault is NEVER a joke. Empowering our children to make healthy choices, respectful of themselves and others, will always be our job. I think I could now respond to "it's not rape if you like it" without a lose-my-cool-over-the-top lecture (who listens to that anyway?), but with an honest, open conversation that a statement like that invites. I sure hope so.

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