Saturday, 28 September 2019

All women count - we say enough

A renewed focus on women’s rights has recently taken place in South Africa after the devastating murder of two university students.  One of the murders took place in a local post office - my local post office for many years.  In a devastating comment about the death of her daughter, Uyinene Mrwetyana’s mother pointed out that of all the spaces she would have warned her daughter about, the post office was not one of them.

This the tradgedy of gender related violence.  The knowledge that young women suffer no matter how we may try to protect them, and that there are no right answers.  Women are harmed, through no fault of their own, and until we change those social myths which devalue ‘others’ there is nothing we can do to prevent this.

No matter how hard we try, telling women to stay out of dangerous places will not unsettle the commmon sense belief that hegemonic masculinity is brutal, that men have to prove themselves at the expense of others, or those on the top of the social hierarchy have the most value.  As long as we protect ourselves by valuing the masculine at the expense of the feminine, we place young women at risk.

However, it isn’t only women who are at risk of what is commonly called a ‘toxic’ masculinity.  While social media platforms question the need to speak of gay sexualities or ‘trans’ women, we do have to take into account identities which extend beyond socially constructed norms.  Gay men have been placed at risk simply because their identities have challenged dominant definitions of masculinity.  Likewise gay women have sometimes experienced what has been called ‘corrective ‘ rape, a policing of heteronormative boundaries which leaves both gay men and lesbian women at risk.

While Twitter debates may rage indefinitely (and sometimes a Tweeter is just a Twit) about who be included or excluded when it comes to ‘women’ or ‘womxn’, it is important to turn our eyes to the true cause of abuse in society.  Social hierarchies.  Common sense, officially called hegemony, has created the belief that some people are more valuable than others, that some identities should be stigmatized, and that dominant ways of being value power and success.  

Without the recognition that all people deserve value, and that the voices of ‘others’ need to be heard, listened to and treated with empathy, we won’t be able to make a difference.  When we are unable to create spaces where all beings matter - not through social position, identity or power - but simply because they exist - we cannot work towards a transformative society.

Our world mistreats those less powerful.  It is time to stand up against it.  It is time to speak out against dominant voices.  Let yourself be heard.  We say enough to unequal power structures, to violence, marginalization and abuse.  We say enough to patriarchy and to a capitalism which treats people as marketable commodities.  We say enough to social structures which maintain inequalities and to common sense belief systems which impact on the lives of others.  We say enough.

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Wednesday, 28 August 2019

It’s not just common sense

Do women have common sense?  Should we?  What does this mean anyway?  How do we work with common sense in diversity practice?  What does it mean to make normality strange?

I moved away from writing about diversity from a corporate perspective a couple of years ago - at the end of 2012.  Since then my interest has very much been social ecological justice and those ways that ecological exploitation is linked to the mistreatment of ‘other’ people.

However, I recently read a post on corporate diversity which shared that as women we should use our common sense.  And I wondered what this meant?  Diversity work in all areas is very much about questioning normality or what we believe to be common sense.  Common sense may declare that women shouldn’t walk around after dark, or that poor people should save money instead of buying food quality coffee.  It may also declare that we should reduce, reuse and recycle.  However, these views of the world often leave the status quo unquestioned.  Instead, we could argue that streets made safer for women would increase our sense of freedom, that all people deserve a living wage and the right to financial freedom, and that although many poor communities have been constructed as damaging or dangerous to ecology, it is in fact the wealthy who often use vehicles with only a single passenger, use a great deal more water or electricity and have the choice not to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Tontruly create change in society, we need to work with the invisible social norms which bind us to the status quo.  This means taking time to look at the rules and rituals of everyday life.  To do this, we need to question who benefits and who loses out from the way our world has been constructed at present.  Making normality strange beans looking beyond all that we take for granted.  To do this, there is a need to explore marginalized voices and those who have not necessarily been heard in the past.

Fitting in with the status quo of it disadvantages a lot of people isn’t helpful.  Instead the goal is to change a workplace culture so that all people can be seen and acknowledged.  A truly inclusive environment means that each individual feels comfortable.  We also have to ask ‘inclusion into what exactly?’ When questioning our world.  Whose values are acknowledged?  What do we see as knowledge?  Whose values, beliefs and ways of being are treated with respect?

Looking at women in the workplace doesn’t simply mean acknowledging women in the boardroom.  It means challenging belief systems which may be discriminatory to all people.  This includes women of all classes, religions, ‘races’ and sexualities.  One of the greatest struggles feminism had was its focus on ‘white’ middle class women with a western perspective.  While feminism spoke for well educated and privileged women who wishes to shape a career, it did not speak for poor women who often had to go out to work but who faced exploitation while they did so.

When looking at cultural diversity, let’s also include belief systems around the greater ecology too, remembering that all beings have life and are able to live well.  Instead of perpetuating the myth that success depends on development, let’s look at the importance of creating a humane and sustainable world, where all of life is given value and a new culture is built, one which focuses less on the boardroom, and more on the small changes which give us the alchemy we need to transform our society.

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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Women's voices, Harvey Weinstein and sexual assualt

I've been reading the New Yorker, and Annabella Sciorra's story of shame and upset at what Harvey Weinstein had allegedly done to her.  What stood out for me was the shame that she felt, and her horrible reluctance to tell her story because others would 'know' what she had experienced.

It brought back the terrible memory of sitting in a lecture, and having a professor explain to us that when women are sexually assaulted, their strongest emotion is not fear or rage, but shame.  Shame wasn't the only emotion Annabella Sciorra expressed.  She shared her fear as well.  And hers was a fear so strong that she was unable to tell her story.  Initially, she denied being Weinstein's 'type'.

For me, it is these two factors - the fear of speaking out about rape or sexual assault due to shame, and the fear of speaking out because of, well because of sheer terror, that are at the heart of this story.  The terror of feeling physically vulnerable and unsafe is a cruel dynamic that puts a woman at the mercy of a predator.  The shame she experiences is an equally social dynamic.

In a fit of helpless frustration, I saw a woman speak out earlier this week about 'Hollywood', as though the women who were being assaulted had this happen purely because they were in a strange place, an out of this world place, where fantasy is made, and all women are sexy or glamorous.  This made it seem as though sexual assault only happens to women who make a living dressing their best, putting on make up and styling themselves to look their best (and possibly their sexiest).

This, I think, is one of the reasons women might feel ashamed about rape or sexual assault.  It is those social myths which point out that a woman has been sexually assaulted because she is somehow extra - ordinary.  She was a Hollywood type, for example, and perhaps her clothes were too sexy, or her hair too glamorous.  Perhaps she was dancing, or drinking, her skirt was too short, or she was so desperate for a job that she ended up in an uncomfortable situation.  In other words, perhaps if this woman did something 'wrong', and she is to blame for what has happened to her, normal women, everyday women, will be safe.

Putting the blame on a woman for sexual assault, whether the focus is on her clothing, her occupation, her hairstyle or her posture, blames a woman for her assault.  Likewise, if we see a woman as guilty because 'she shouldn't have been out at night', or 'she should have watched her drink', we place the blame on a woman for her assault.

Rape or sexual assault is dehumanizing, and it robs a woman of her voice, her physical boundaries and her feeling of safety.  After suffering such a terrible crime, a woman would feel ashamed, and she would feel ashamed because her humanity was robbed from her.  She becomes afraid to speak about because to share this feeling of degradation means going back into this terrible space.  Sexual assault is a violation.  A woman would not want to share it because sharing means having to recall it.

But what if a woman knew that no matter how hard it would be to share, her story would be treated with empathy or compassion?  What if her story was accepted and treated with empathy, and she knew that nobody would ask her about the length of her skirt or the height of her heels.  Where she was, how many drinks she'd had, or the career she'd chosen to do, wouldn't come into the picture.  Instead, she would share knowing that her voice would make her powerful.  What then?

It's a hard question to answer, because women do not generally share stories of sexual assault under these circumstances.  They do not assume that the automatic response would be empathy.  Brene Brown shares that empathy helps when it comes to shame, because it provides us with an antidote.  We don't have to share an exact situation or circumstance.  We don't only have to relate because we have shared  this experience too.  We relate because we are human.  And when we do, we take away some of the stigma or shame.  We do this to give a woman her humanity back.

When it comes to men, unpacking the social myths we tell about rape is important.  We can no longer just quietly mutter that 'boys will be boys' and leave it at that.  There is a need to give the majority of men their humanity back too.  Depicting men as base creatures who simply cannot help themselves if put in the same room as a 'Hollywood' type is unfair.  It lowers the standards, and says that men should be forgiven for being wild beings who are quite simply out of control.  It silences the voices of feminist men, men who would work towards changing gender related norms or beliefs, and men who would remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation. We need to see men who rape as predators so that we can see it for what it really and truly is - a despicable act carried out by a man who abuses his power.

If Annabella Sciorra believed that there was a system which would protect her, and a culture which would empathize deeply with her experience, would she have felt as scared to come forward?  Where are the gaps which prevent women from speaking?  And why do we find fault with women who do speak out?

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Monday, 17 April 2017

Light in the Dark...and Lines in the Sand

This past week, I've been looking at Gloria Anzaldua's book Light in the Dark which explores the role of imagination and empathy in creating social transformation. She focuses on that part of us which exists between worlds, between the world of dominant culture and our own imaginations, and between the world of the ordinary and the spiritual.

This book speaks of the chaos which sometimes shakes up our worldview when we start to look at the world from a holistic perspective. And she explores the struggles and confusions this brings to our lives.  As we search continually for the parts missing in dominant perspectives of the world, this sometimes means that our worldview constantly changes and evolves.  Exploring new knowledge or alternate perspectives can place us on a continuum between hope and despair.  But Gloria Anzaldua speaks of the traditional healer or shaman, who knew that in order to offer healing to his/her community, s/he needed to go through a process of being dismembered or torn apart.  When s/he is able to pull the pieces together again to create a new reality, s/he has something to offer.

This book also focuses a great deal on empathy, and the ability to see the perspectives of 'the other' in order to work towards change.  How interesting that my second book this week gave a lived example of how to this.

Lines in the Sand is by A.A. Gill, who writes with a great deal of sensitivity about the experiences of refugees, explaining that although he has tried not to be the good samaritan, once you stop and see the human face of 'the refugee', then it is impossible to ever turn away.  The book is a collection of articles which explore what it means to be displaced with such kindness and compassion that I found it hard to stop reading.

One of the articles which resonated most deeply though was the experience of going out to eat in a shelter for people who have no homes.  A.A. Gill speaks of the different cities we inhabit, depending on the lives we are able to live, and the opportunities open to us.  He introduced us to his own life, and the lives of those who have lost homes, families or opportunities, and the struggles many members of his (and any) city have from day to day.  There is the woman from West Africa who is in London without family or people.  She lost her job and her home.  Tears trickle down her face as she eats.

There is the Baptist Minister who no longer has a congregation.  He thanks God for chicken and rice.  Gill says:

"Now I don't know a damn about the mysterious ways of God, but I suppose it's no coincidence that at the heart of all religion there is food.  The sharing of food.  The act of feeding someone is the most basic transubstantiation.  To make them whole, and well, to feed their future, and the hope for the better tomorrow... "

He ends his article by explaining that we don't actually exist in different cities, that we still eat alongside people who are homeless, who are cleaners, who are abused, trafficked or kicked out.  We just choose to dis-remember.  He shares that 'others', including the volunteers who try to make a difference need our help.  Not a lot.  Just a little.  We all have something to offer.

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Monday, 9 January 2017

This Changes Everything

I read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein in 2014, and it was one of the first times I was able to make the connection between climate change, 'development' and marginalised groups of people.  I began to learn more about how the exploitation of earth was linked to the exploitation of 'other' people, the desecration of cultural belief systems, and future life.

Naomi Klein has always been able to connect the patterns behind our surface beliefs or values, and link them to a deeper social and environmental reality.  From a discussion on scientific solutions to climate change, to creating consciousness around the lingering impacts of colonialism and industry, she is able to take climate change out of abstract numbers or external fears, and bring it into an awareness of our everyday lives.  She also exposes the myth behind big business efforts to work towards a more sustainable future.

One of the most troubling aspects of the book linked to the losses we don't notice.  Although This Changes Everything focuses on oil spills, and the loss of life not yet born, I've since become aware of those ways we're unaware of the plants, animals or life which is unknown to us, but which is dying out.  The loss of life which happens everyday sometimes goes unnoticed.

My focus was originally critical social theory, and so my concern was often that environmental concerns ignored the voices of poor or marginalised people, who face struggles.  Until I read Ecofeminism, which focuses on those ways we put life on a hierarchy, and that the hierarchies themselves create a society where racism, speciesism, sexism or other forms of marginalisation can occur.  Ecofeminism asks us to question those philosophies which make up our everyday thinking, and all that is considered normal, so that we can search for different options.

Exploitation of earth has often been linked to hierarchal living.  In some communities, some animals are given more rights than marginalised people, and this is why focus on sustainability can become, in itself, a conversation of dominance.  It's why it is important to include the voices of all beings, so that we can work towards a different future.  But I'm starting to believe that we can only do this if we are able to feel a deeper sense of connectedness to the world around us.

Over time, I've learned that consumerism isn't an abstract concept.  It's about creating a sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction within some, to the detriment of others.  In some ways, it is also about putting those who can afford to buy or dispose of 'goods' regularly into the centre, so that poverty or harm to the environment or other beings becomes forgotten.  

Spending time in a world where there is a focus on life, relationship, connection and a deep awareness of place would increase our awareness of other ways of being.  It might also bring us to a space of healing - for both ourselves and those beings who exist alongside us.

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