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Sexism: Adaptable to the 21st Century

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By Shira Small

My sophomore year of high school, a dozen freshman boys created a March Madness style bracket evaluating each girl in the school to determine who was the prettiest. The domain they used required individual input, meaning they couldn’t just copy and paste names from the directory—they had to type in all 140 girls’ names by hand. The boys made derogatory puns out of many girls’ names, making fun of the way certain names sounded, or adding in crude language just for fun. Later, they admitted that they had intentionally misspelled the girls’ names so the list would be harder to find, but as with most things on the internet, it didn’t remain hidden for long.

The day the bracket went public, I saw a girl who had been ranked 60th run into the bathroom, tears rushing down her face. Moments later, a girl who was ranked 7th followed suit. It didn’t matter where you ranked; learning your friends had been judging you solely based on your appearance hurt no matter what. But for me it didn’t just hurt to see my name on the list, it changed the way I walked through the halls. Suddenly I was hyper aware of the way I looked and the way I moved; it didn’t matter if I was in class or with friends—I couldn’t stop thinking about the ranking. My mind became a cesspool of self-criticism, and my insecurities dominated every thought. These boys’ blatant objectification had turned me into an object in my own eyes.

Equally excruciating to being placed on this list was the backlash—or lack thereof—from the student body. I figured that people who normally dispute sexism’s existence would be eating their words. Instead, most people shrugged off the incident because “these types of rankings are made all the time.” I was shocked. I thought, really? That’s your defence? Sexism is acceptable because it happens all the time? In the same breath people said sexism wasn’t real, and also that the bracket was acceptable because sexism is unavoidable. Externally, I didn’t feel comfortable explicitly questioning the hypocrisy of some of my classmates. Internally, I was suffocating, furious that I couldn’t relay how hurtful and prejudicial their dismissal of the list was. I found myself at a crossroads: do I keep quiet in my comfort zone, or do I speak out at the risk of being controversial? Looking back, I wish I had spoken out, but in the moment I felt so lost that I did what too many girls who are hurting do—I stayed silent.

I don’t think the whole school considered the bracket acceptable, but it brought out a side of the student body I hadn’t seen before. One of my closest male friends admitted to creating a ranking of all the girls in our grade and discussing it with other boys. A handful of girls were unbothered because they had gotten so used to seeing these types of lists. Many felt rightfully upset, but some misplaced their anger. In response to the bracket, one girl retaliated with a list of her own. She ranked about nine boys in the school, most of whom had participated in creating the original ranking. Although the school punished her as well as the boys responsible for the other bracket, her punishment wasn’t as harsh. The same people who had disregarded the list of 140 girls took great offense to this new list, claiming it was sexist towards men that it was taken less seriously. I don’t condone this retaliatory list, but it was clear to me that it did less damage.

I was a feminist before the list emerged. I noticed daily microaggressions towards women; I saw an underrepresentation of women in power; I knew that not all women had the right to choose; I witnessed my mother’s exposure to sexism in the workplace; I heard about my grandmother not always having the right to vote. However, I never thought I would encounter such explicit sexism from progressive kids my age. People often tell me there’s no longer a need for feminism, and at times it’s hard to disagree. But the list and the troubling responses it elicited sent me a clear message: sexism is real, and we cannot stay silent. Progress isn’t permanent, and in order to protect the advances we have made we must be vigilant, proactive, and supportive — we must be feminists.

This content has been provided by the Jewish Women’s Archive

Male “Guardians” in Saudi Arabia

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By Amy Callaghanurl

There are issues with women’s rights everywhere. These issues include, but are certainly not limited to; the ever-present wage gap, the continued effect of sexism encountered by women in their day to day lives, and, of course, the fact that in Saudi Arabia women still need the permission of their male guardian to do pretty much anything.

It’s a fact that women’s rights in places like Saudi Arabia are horrific. We hear shocking news stories all the time, most often about the driving ban, which is perhaps the most well known issue in the UK and US. But the human rights issue goes far beyond that. The guardian system means that  women are assigned a male ‘guardian’- usually their father, brother or husband – and this ‘guardian’ basically has total control over the woman’s life. Women can’t study, work, travel, even go to the doctor without the permission of their guardian. Good grief. It all sounds a bit Victorian, doesn’t it?

My question, though, is about the cultural restraints on women. Sure, there is legislation in place regarding the guardian system, and the driving ban, and we know Saudi Arabia is not hesitant to punish harshly for breaches. But does a cultural aspect play into it at all? Even if the legislation was slackened, would women feel comfortable making the most of new freedoms?

The answer, according to the wife of a Saudi journalist, is no.

In June, in one of my classes at school, I got the opportunity to listen to a Saudi man – a journalist. He worked for a magazine – talking about issues in Saudi Arabia. At first glance, he seemed reasonably progressive. He spoke about how he wished women’s rights were more like how they are in the UK, where he apparently spends a lot of time. Yet scratch the surface and his answers to certain questions seemed slightly evasive and indirect. And one of the things he said which surprised me most was about his wife.

He seems like a nice husband, don’t get me wrong. His wife travels with him to the UK, and when in the UK seems to enjoy all the freedoms of a UK woman, like being allowed to drive, for example. Yet her husband told us that she had said, despite being perfectly happy to drive in the UK, that she wouldn’t drive in Saudi Arabia even if it was legal – and even if, 5 years after it became legal, it was a widely accepted practice.

Hmmm. That just doesn’t fly with me. I’m sure, of course, that there are women who wouldn’t feel comfortable, initially, driving. But after it became commonly accepted, I’m pretty sure women would gladly be driving about, enjoying their new (and overdue) freedom. In addition, the prolific campaign Women2Drive which asks that the ban on women driving be lifted (started by Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman and activist) has garnered a lot of public support, not only overseas but, more tellingly, in the Saudi community, with many women driving cars in towns in Saudi Arabia in protest of the ban. So clearly, Saudi women do want to drive.

Another statistic reflecting the relative progressiveness of women in Saudi Arabia is the fact that 60% of university graduates in Saudi Arabia are Saudi women. That’s right, 60%. Saudi women make up the majority of graduates – showing a keen thirst for learning and knowledge, and the gaining of skills – yet they only constitute 18.6% of the nation’s workforce (as of 2011). What happens between graduating and a career? Where do all the intelligent, capable, eager Saudi women go? The most likely answer is, their male guardian won’t let them work – they’ve had their chance to go and study, and now they should be satisfied with staying in the home where they belong.

Yet even the fact that they want to study shows that Saudi women want to progress. They don’t want to stay locked in the same rights-restricting jam. Give them the freedom to do these things themselves – no male permission needed – and they will. And the country will be better for it.

We Are More Than Just a Distraction

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By Lily Scott

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The sun is getting hotter and the days are getting longer, summer is finally here! That means bare legs in the grass, floaty tops and warm sunshine on our tummies right? Nope, not quite if you’re still in school or college. Across the country, school administrators are trying their hardest to cover up any parts of the female body that are deemed ‘inappropriate’. In many schools, this includes: legs, shoulders, cleavage and midriff. Exactly the parts of the body that suit the summer weather.

Last week, I walked into the front gate of my school and was pulled aside by a male teacher. He told me that the bit of skin showing between my high-waisted jeans and baggy crop top was not acceptable and I must go home to change immediately. Walking home, my frustration grew at the dress code that humiliates and shames girls in school when they should be in a lesson, getting the same education as the male half of the school. At most schools, dress code violators are either sent home or made to change into any item of clothing thrown at them from the lost property cupboard. It’s embarrassing being targeted like this, leaving many girls with loss of self-esteem. Although there are rules for boys, they are not as frequently enforced and only state that t-shirts can’t reference drugs or anything sexual. It is unequal that boys can walk around freely showing their underwear beneath saggy jeans, yet the slightest glimpse of a bra strap and teachers practically faint with shock. Everyone is aware that most girls do in fact wear a bra underneath their clothing, so why are bras treated as such a mysterious taboo that must not be seen or mentioned? Bras have become the Voldemort of the clothing world.

The rules for women will never, ever be simple. We are expected to conform to both the media and school’s expectations and tread a very fine line of being pretty and appealing but not revealing. We are told that we must be pleasing to the eye but not too suggestive or sexy. These guidelines tell men that it is okay to slut shame and eventually leads to the idea that when a women is sexually assaulted, it is the clothes that she was wearing that are to blame. In other words, ‘she was asking for it’. Girls as young as 13 are being told to change when simply showing their legs in shorts, or bare shoulders in vest tops. These students are too young to be sexualised in any way and are taught from such an early age that their bodies tempt men and it is their responsibility to stop leering or harassment.

It is unlikely that school uniform policies will be relaxed as authorities are intent on their belief that they are doing what is best for the students. It is clear that what they are doing only benefits males as the distraction of female bodies are taken away, making it easier to concentrate on learning. However, we could argue that young men are very capable of exercising self-control and will not always go wild at the sight of a girl’s bare shoulders. If it is absolutely necessary to apply dress codes, it should be equal for boys and girls, so that the system doesn’t favour one gender over another. It should not be the concern of a female to change the way she looks or dresses so that a man won’t view her in a certain way. What needs to change is the attitudes that girls are simply sexual objects to be hassled or catcalled. We should be taught to be confident and proud of our bodies, not policing ourselves for the male gaze.

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