Last month the Guardian newspaper featured an article by 17 year old Jinan Younis about the sexist abuse she and her peers received after setting up a feminist society in her school. Jinan’s story demonstrates the importance of schools as sites where feminist activism can grow and where girls and young women can safely and creatively think about and challenge sexism and gender inequality. Yet her story also, sadly, demonstrates that this space is under threat. One of the many responses to Jinan’s brave story was the creation of a fantastic project called ‘Feminism Belongs: a collection of photo messages about why schools need to take gender empowerment seriously. GEA invited Jinan and Tanya O’Carroll (who, along with Jinan, helped create the ‘Feminism Belongs’ project) to write a guest blog about their experiences. We hope readers enjoy their post, and are inspired to post their own photo messages!
I am Jinan Younis and I recently wrote an article about my experiences of setting up a feminist society at my school.
I felt that my situation of girls being verbally abused, humiliated and intimidated for speaking out against sexism highlighted a very serious problem that was common in many schools like my own: there is no feminist education. There is no system or policy in place that teaches boys and girls about fundamental issues such as consent and rape, gender inequality, and body image. There is ignorance and aggression surrounding feminism and serious issues facing women. There is a huge reluctance from boys to consider issues that face women as ‘real’ issues. I was recently told that feminism is a ‘minor issue’, and one boy told me that he agreed that sexism still exists, before asking me not to tell his friends about our conversation. This apathy and hatred of feminism among young boys needs to be addressed.
As I went to an all-girls school, I have witnessed the sorts of traumas that teen girls face. There is a huge lack of self worth and self confidence among girls. I’ve had friends who were in emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and I can’t even begin to describe the pressures that face young girls concerning body image. Too many have eating disorders; too many turn that packet of crisps around to inspect the calories. Too many find their self confidence resting on whether the boy walking past checks them out. Too few are happy in their own bodies. I think schools should take an active role in creating a space where these issues are openly discussed and are dealt with. Schools should support girls in their fight against sexism, and should take a leading role in ensuring gender equality, healthy body image, and instilling much needed self worth among young girls.
The pledge ‘Schools against sexism’ aims to provide schools with a framework which will help them tackle sexism in their institutions. It states clearly the areas that need to be addressed, such as body image, respect and equality, and it allows the schools to have contact with large organisations such as End Violence Against Women. In order to gather support for this pledge, we have also set up a tumblr campaign ‘Feminism belongs in Education’. In this, people hold up a board with the words ‘Feminism belongs in schools because…’ with their own personal response. This campaign aims to acquire support from students and teachers, along with the general public, so that head teachers realise the necessity of implementing a policy of gender equality in their schools.
I believe that the only way that we can change the deep rooted sexism that is still such a huge part of our society is through education. Schools have the power to change the sexist attitudes of young boys, to encourage boys and girls to challenge gender stereotypes, to offer support to young girls and boys in the face of teenage pressures, and to instate a sense of self worth, self respect and mutual respect amongst teens. I think schools are currently leaving out a vital part of education for young girls and boys. Gender, rape, sexual consent, unhealthy body image, lack of respect and sexual harassment are all issues that are especially common among teens. I believe that schools have the power to change this.
Two weeks ago I read an article that touched me deeply. A young woman, Jinan Younis, had written an article in the Guardian explaining what happened when she set up a Feminist Society in her all girls school. Along with the other girls in the society Jinan became the victim of extraordinary online abuse and intimidation from boys in her wider social circle – so much so that the school asked the society to cease its feminist activities, citing concerns for the girls’ safety.
Did I find the boys’ attitudes to Jinan and her peers particularly surprising? Not really. I myself was at school less than a decade ago and the description of the boys’ behaviour was familiar. I think we got used to the idea that as teenagers we should ‘rise above’ constant sexual jokes and harassment, that the boys were just being boys, that they would grow out of it, and that it was harmless. The main difference is that none of us at school would have thought to openly call ourselves feminists. Should we have, I am convinced that, like Jinan, we would have come up against a much nastier and aggressive form of abuse.
However, while the boys behaviour in Jinan’s article didn’t surprise me, the school’s did. Actually I wouldn’t call it surprise. What I felt was extreme anger and sadness. Jinan’s words were deeply troubling:
We, a group of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old girls, have made ourselves vulnerable by talking about our experiences of sexual and gender oppression only to elicit the wrath of our male peer group…Without the support from our school, girls who had participated in the campaign were isolated, facing a great deal of verbal abuse with the full knowledge that there would be no repercussions for the perpetrators.
I felt an overwhelming urgency to let Jinan and the other girls know that they were not alone; that there were many of us who agreed with her and who were living with the consequences of sexism going unchecked. For while I personally didn’t suffer the worst pressures of my gender at school they crept up on me. At Cambridge University I encountered a different breed of misogyny, where institutions such as the Pitt Club still exist and where old boy’s mentality dictates so many of the social rules.
I also came to notice it as I got older, when I discovered my six year old sister’s preoccupation and fascination with body image. Where I had previously ignored sexism in advertising and the media I began to notice it everywhere and saw the damage that it was doing to another generation of boys and girls.
I wanted Jinan’s school to know that they had failed her and so many of us when they did not promote and encourage their student’s feminist work. Many of us felt the same. I reached out to a few friends on Facebook and a group of us grew, as people added people, who added more people. We soon found ourselves with an active and passionate circle, including teachers and campaigners, community artists and social workers who wanted to send schools a message the Feminism is desperately needed in education.
We reached out to Jinan and worked with her to set-up the Feminism Belongs project, a collection of photo messages about why our education institutions need to take gender empowerment seriously. We were amazed at the rapid response. By the end of the week we had tons of entries, some coming from far away, including Estonia and Mexico. It seemed that both Jinan, and our message that Feminism Belongs, had touched a nerve.
It is obvious that gender oppression and sexism still pervade our society and it is hard to know where to begin to unpick them. One thing I am certain of is that feminist education is critical for young girls and boys growing up today. Not to teach gender divides but to open up conversations and safe spaces for both sexes to honestly explore the multiplicity of gender pressures that affect them. The struggle for gender equality is far from over and we will not have put it to rest until all of us – men and women, boys and girls – are proud to call ourselves feminists and understand the powerful idea of equality, choice and dignity that the word stands for.
Inspired? Want to get involved? Here’s how:
- Take your own photos and add them to the Feminism Belongs website: http://feminismbelongs.tumblr.com/
- Sign and promote the UK Feminista ‘Schools Against Sexism’ pledge – and get your school or your child’s school to sign up to: http://ukfeminista.org.uk/take-action/generation-f/schools-against-sexism-pledge/
- Why not write a guest blog for GEA and tell us about your own experiences of setting up, running or being part of a Feminist Society in school, college or university; or tell us why you think feminism belongs in schools and how we can make sure that it stays that way. Contact Kim Allen if you’re interested in writing for us (firstname.lastname@example.org)
*These images come from the Feminism Belongs site. Thank you to Tanya and Jinan for allowing us to use these here.