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Today, at 10:30 am, New York time, Quipu.cc and the HotSpring Network’s NOW Labz project launched a week of discussions on the status of women’s rights, timed to coincide with the UN’s 57th annual Commission on the Status of Women conference. Today’s topic was education, and a panel of three women discussed the topic in connection with family life, political life, economic opportunity and the socio-cultural dynamics that either perpetuate or might help overcome the ongoing global pandemic of violence against women.
Riga Listin, a contributor to Cafe Sentido—a sister publication of Quipu.cc—who writes about media freedoms and political process, acted as impromptu moderator for a discussion involving herself and two collaborators. She was joined by a personal friend Sonari Lumi, who researches structural impediments to sound education policy for underserved communities, and Evelyn Winston Perez, who also contributes to Cafe Sentido, and writes mainly about conflict and women’s rights in Africa and the Middle East.
Ms. Lumi proposed the following guiding questions to help drive the discussion:
1) What does education mean, exactly?
2) What materials and resources does one need to access in order to enjoy access to education?
3) Is violence associated with attempts to gain access to education?
4) Does education play a role in reducing the incidence of violence in any given environment?
Ms. Winston Perez said she was told as a child:
“it was not my place to study politics, or to use language for critical reporting, but I wanted to be a reporter. It was my choice to be a reporter, but I knew that I would not be as capable if I did not have the best quality language education, and the opportunity to learn about research, composition and editorial process.”
Ms. Listin agreed with this assessment, while Ms. Lumi explained that:
“I was always able to study and was not criticized for it, but my grandmother made it clear to me that in her view, I was always just on the edge of the world, and that conventions that made the political world a male world would easily push me aside if that permissive moment were to change.”
The phrasing “permissive moment” was clearly important to her. Throughout the discussion, the theme kept recurring, in sometimes subtle ways, that what we need to achieve now, as a society of human beings is the recognition that “permissive moment” is the wrong way to feel about it. It should be the norm; we should see any marginalization or disempowerment of women as anomolous and out of step with the demands of the real and practical world.
The discussion turned to situations in which women who are not only empowered by education, possibly even by having more education than anyone around them, are forced to endure injury, even mutilation, in order to prove themselves to their community.
Ms. Lumi expressed the following view:
“It is a real problem, where the empowered, educated person is a woman, but she still is forced, by overwhelming social pressures, to forego her capacity for reasoned choice and undergo some kind of humiliation. This affects not only that woman, but everyone connected to her, and it does spread ignorance, in my experience. And that can reverse the trend toward the expansion of rights.”
Evelyn Winston Perez, who had spent time with women who had chosen, under duress, to endure ritual genital mutilation, to avoid losing contact with family, explained:
“When I first witnessed that problem, that of an educated, worldly woman, with all the right and capacity for an accomplished professional life, enjoying what was essentially an exceedingly liberal opportunity for wholeness and fulfillment, in an otherwise ultra-orthodox society, have to give up her personal sovereignty in such a comprehensive way, and undergo physical mutilation in order to show her allegiance to family… I was destroyed. I could not believe what I was witnessing. It was hurtful to be a conscious human being alive to see that such things are done by conscious human beings to other conscious human beings.”
She explained that the victim of this mutilation described the process as a deliberate deception:
“She said to me over and over again that she could not believe how she had been deceived by women she loved and respected and how the men appeared willing to collaborate through ignorance, and how she was—in her view—misled into believing that she was to endure a sacred ritual that would bring her spiritual might. She was heartbroken, and I remember the look in her eyes; I remember it vividly… she said she had lost the ability to believe that the people she thought she knew could love her at all.”
As the event organizer, I posed a couple of questions myself, and this led to a conversation about the sometimes controversial topic of the education of elders. Where it appears to people with much experience of life that they are simply adhering to cultural norms, victims of what some of those norms permit may feel they are not only harmed by bad actors, or by abusive practices, but by the systematized deception of the human mind.
Would it be possible to address questions of cultural continuity by staging intergenerational hearings? Perhaps seminars held at schools where children are taught to transcend any and all practices that suggest, condone or instigate violence against women?
Ms. Winston Perez shared the following insights:
“No matter what you want to do, no matter how empowered you are, every human being also has desire for human connection, and the threat of removing that connection can sometimes be a more powerful weapon than any physical force. I think, from [the] cases I have witnessed first-hand, it is important to say this: we have a right to the spiritual and emotional integrity of our empowered free and educated selves. It is a cop-out to say that a woman is sovereign and so she can take care of herself. Everyone needs family, needs roots, needs connections, to give volume to their expression of selfhood, and so yes, we do need to explore how to educate elders, how to cultivate more openness about personal choice.”
I put forward the question: “Is there something we can do differently to push the message through the media, even in the most liberal of societies?” Ms. Listin and Ms. Lumi offered the following responses:
Riga: “Yes, Joseph, I think that’s true. The media do not adequately relay this message. Violence against women is pandemic; it is supported by cultural norms, even in the most liberal democracies, and we do have to suffer the indignity of watching newscasts where an incidence of sexual assault is treated as anomalous, while millions of us know it is a constant problem, whether on the streets of Cairo, or New York, or Moscow.”
Sonari: “I don’t know if it’s just that… I think media miss the boat, but I think they miss it because they are responding to a cultural situation, in which the issue in question is not properly explored and discussed. I would favor early childhood education, with what you could call intergenerational seminars. Remedial classes for adults who have not yet understood why their children need this training.”
Riga: “It’s a similar problem to bullying… ‘boys will be boys’ is too easy an out. It explains nothing; it solves nothing; it teaches nothing of value, except how to pretend one is a duck and the violence is water, but one is not a duck and the violence is not water.”
Sonari Lumi said women in all societies have a right to not only excel in their own right, but also to lead, as does anyone, when their personal qualities, judgment and intelligence are called for. Ms. Winston Perez said “I think education is not even the fundamental word here; it is capacity for vision.”
Ms. Listin, whose own reporting depends a great deal on her ability to remain hidden, and to observe from up close, noted that “We can see sometimes a lot more than we think. But we need openness, inside our minds and with the force of a vibrant education, and in our surroundings.”
As we expand our capacity for vision, as we learn not only to imagine but to witness coming into being a better, more open, more humane future, we can ask what practical solutions we can deploy. The UN Women team have put together a number of documents that not only report on the status of women and girls, but also suggest to national governments the precise steps they can take to empower women, improve equality and end violence against women and girls.