This blog post is written by Stav Williams, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in the Kiryat Chaim neighborhood of Haifa.
Running down the streets of Kiryat Chaim, a man jockeys in front of me. His eyes fixated upon my skin, as if he is yet to conclude salivating over the steak he had for dinner. Fear not though, for I am saved by the sound of cars honking at me – the male attempt to gain the attention of a woman who, from behind the wheel of a car, looks like a girl who is barely old enough to give consent. I reach for the volume button on my phone, that remains attached to my now frantically palpitating chest. Nonetheless, the increased volume fails to drown out the sound of yelling from yet another man who is distracted by my existence. Alas, I reach the beach just as the streetlights flicker on but not out enough to lighten the distance between him and I, to let me know that I am once again safe from his curiosity. Because the true success of a run has nothing to do with my own individual performance or experience, and everything to do with the restraint of the men that I non-consensually encounter.
This experience is not unique to me or the girls and women that I know. Nor is it subjected to this place, this society, this country. The objectification, sexualisation, oppression and mistreatment of women is so universally ingrained. It has laid and builds the foundations of almost every society and culture. Thus, the ‘gender lens’ for me is not about inclusion, equality, equity or any attempt to tip toe around the resistance on the topic. When I say ‘gender lens’ I’m talking about JUSTICE. I’m talking about true liberation and a call to action.
Though, in order to delve deeper into this topic and to truly understand how society and culture shape our lives and our gender perspectives, we must first be willing to let go of the idea that it’s perfect. We must detach from the naïve assumption that our identities have nothing to do with our experiences and successes, and how the world is shaped around us because of them. Because they do- they have everything to do with them. And if your identities are glorified by society, you will already be looking at the gender lens through a rose-tinted filter. Society and cultures glorify men. They glorify heterosexuality, being cis gendered (and performing to gender norms), being white, being a favoured race or religion, being able bodied and having high socio-economic status. Therefore, when adopting the gender lens, we must observe through the eyes of the different identities that carry its burdens.
During my placements and experiences here, I watch how gender weaves so abruptly yet customarily through all aspects of society. How it echoes so loudly in every interaction, yet silences in corners of acknowledgement.
Within school, I draw comparisons of gender’s impact within the classroom with what I know of from researching and teaching back home. I examine the gendered roles of the teachers and how they interact with different genders during the lesson. I witness the behaviour of the boys in contrast to that of the girls. I seek those who do not fit gender discourses, who are curled up in the corner or hide behind their hair and baggy clothing. And I ask myself what can I bring, what can I do now that I’m here in this new school and culture to change the course of gender? Can I challenge the boys’ thinking, experiences and knowledge of what women can and cannot do? Can I encourage respect by building a good rapport and showing an intolerance to bad language and treatment towards people? Can I empower the voice and intelligence of girls who are distracted by their phones and concerned about the way that they look to believe, even just for a moment, that their accomplishments can be more than just the validation of their looks? Can I validate the existence of the outsiders, the misfits of gender (that resemble my childhood so well) by acknowledging their presence and listening to them so intently until they know that their voice matters? - That they are not alone in this gender-fixated world? Can I dismantle the use of the word ‘gay’ as a negative concept and own the label so well and confidently, that the pupils using it have no choice but to doubt that it may not be such a bad thing to be? And can I centre my priorities on the girls, who of no fault of their own, fall into a target of racial, sexist discrimination? Whose experiences in school and this culture are not based on their abilities or type of people that they are, but rather the colour of their skin and their inability to be the favoured ethnicity and gender in this country?
Whilst coaching girls’ sports in a community centre and NGO, I am powered by the heavy understanding of the endless battles that girls and women face here in sport. How their experiences, involvement, opportunities and support serve as consequences of this culture’s perceptions and mistreatment of girls and women, and the extent of religious and cultural identities. I recognise the scarcity of social support for girls and women in sport: the absence of encouragement from families and communities, the absence of visibility of women’s sport and female role models in the media, and the absence of opportunities for engagement. This lack of support creates a higher demand for empowerment and positive reinforcement in these interactions. I am gifted with the knowledge that it is in these spaces that we must nurture the participation and confidence of girls, so much so that they are empowered enough to know that they can do anything- even though they are told differently everywhere else!
I also have the privilege of working with a feminist organisation that aims to advance the status and rights of women and girls, as well as promote peace, security and socio-economic justice. Through this work I learn and glance through the eyes of women who are excluded and exploited by society. Who are forced to brave a life of abuse, dismissal of their rights and neglect to their safety, in a country that does not have the capacity to regard them as human beings, simply because of their ethnicity. In a country that will sexually exploit them, whilst denying them status to exist. I then witness the rage in the women who work tremendously hard to change the course of their fate. And the power of this rage when they come together to fight, with every bone in their body, for a more just world.
Through my experiences here, I wonder how a country so impelled by religion can be so deficient in love. And then I grapple repeatedly with the notion that religion must already lack love, if it’s already committed to rules and practices that oppress a woman’s existence. That tells her that she must police her appearance and behaviour, because a man cannot control his own. That rids her of her freedom by commanding the way that she must live. And tell me, what does this mean for the women who do not, and cannot and will not fit into this heterosexual, cis-gendered ‘righteousness’? Are we any less human? Are we any less worthy of God’s love?
I read an article recently that was titled: “Are women getting angrier?”- An annual poll that suggested that, over the past ten years, women worldwide have become angrier. The moment I began reading, I began to brainstorm on the infinite reasons why women, worldwide, could be angry. And then I thought - they are angry because they are tired, we are tired. I am tired.
I’m tired of not feeling entirely safe from men as soon as I leave my front door and, at times, behind my front door. I’m tired of feeling disgusted by my own skin after men act like they are entitled to it. I’m tired of being made to feel like I am not a normal, proper woman because I do not adhere to the rules and expectations this society, this religion, this world forces upon me. I’m tired of my experiences around love being made to feel inadequate because they do not involve the presence of a man. I’m tired of being told to tone myself down when my voice is too angry and my athletic behaviour threatens the ‘masculinity’ of men, yet “smile” and tone myself up when my ‘femininity’ fulfills their sexual fantasies. I’m tired of being interrupted, mansplained, mistreated, and silenced by men that tell the world that they care about social change and women’s rights. I’m tired of men telling me that I should moderate my understanding of my own oppression in religion, while they spend a lifetime reaping the benefits of it! I’m tired of being encountered, harassed, objectified, and sexualised by men EVERY SINGLE TIME that I go for a run!
To conclude, there are two things that I know to be true: The first is that the battle for gender justice and liberation is far from over. That in every second that passes more and more girls are being born into a world that is set out to hold them back, to keep them down. That those who entwine into intersections of sexuality, gender identity, race, religion, disability, and socioeconomic status continue to endure increased gender hardship and oppression. And that the repercussions of gender weigh heavily and filter into the everyday lives and decision making of those who carry its burdens. The second is that there is POWER in RAGE. Every time a woman uses her voice, she raises the voices of the women who came before her. Every time she stands up for herself, she empowers the girls and women around her. Every time she demands change and resists the norm, she paves the way for a more just future. However, it is also time that we abolish the responsibility of girls and women to deal with and challenge their own gender oppression, and instead demand it from boys and men. We must educate boys and men on the impacts of gender and how they must impact change. For it is EVERYONE’S responsibility to create a safe, just and liberating world. We are not free until we are all free.
My experiences on this program enable me to explore my passion for justice in gender and act on this through my interactions within the community. However, regardless of where we are and what we do, we can all work towards gender justice by acknowledging our biases and making space for critical conversation and change. This fellowship is about social change, and no one ever changed society by being complicit, especially in the gender realm. The gender lens is about justice and true liberation, and I’m calling YOU to action.