A Reflection from International Women’s Day from Inside the U.N.

A reflection written by Women’s Center intern, Narges Ershad

It has been many years that, in one particular day in the year many people would repeat a sentence to me and other women’s. “ Happy International Women’s Day”!  Throughout the year it has been days and times that people would appreciate me, or we would have critical conversation regarding women’s issues, and see how far we have come. But March 8th was always different.  International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8th, with each country having its own way of celebrating and recognizing the the freedoms or limitations that exist for women. Many organize marches on the streets of their home town, host round tables and panels about the achievements and limitations that women have to that day, and hold undergrounds celebrations and meetings in the countries that people can’t freely gather and talk about the topic.

A view from inside the UN.

A view from inside the UN.

This year during International Women’s Day, I along with many others from around the world, had the privilege of attending the Commission on Status of Women (CSW) conference that was held at the United Nation headquarters in New York City. Over the course of the week and throughout the conference so much came to my mind, so many people and stories inspired me, and I became even more determined about my career goals and role as an activist. As I marched on the streets of NYC with women leaders and activists from around the globe on International Women’s day, talked to leaders, attended panels and meetings, I felt great affirmation in wanting to be involved, do more, and get others involved in the rights for women as well.

FullSizeRender (1)

Here I am outside the UN for the Commission on the Status of Women conference!

 

I have always been interested to learn about other countries and ways and which that they are dealing with and addressing issues regarding women in their country. CSW59 was a place to learn and reflect on all I know and always wanted to learn. This is a 2-week long conference that state officials, leaders, researchers, founders and workers of different NGO’s attend each year to tell others about their country’s progress and see what everyone else is doing. It also provides time for leaders to collaborate together on what they can do as a whole to advocate for  gender equality for everyone.  Many sessions were organized around the topic of gender equality and women’s rights. It was a great feeling to see how all these organizers and leaders have made many great changes in their countries and hear what they are still fighting for through their activism. As topics such as female genital mutilation, sexual abuse, child marriage, human trafficking were discussed throughout the sessions, I was challenged to think more deeply and consider what role I play in making the world a better place for all girls and women.

I really enjoyed all the session, but one in particular really stood out to me was one hosted by U.N Women. They introduced a book called Transnational Feminist Movement. This is a great book that explores that transnational feminist movement and “contributions they have made to global knowledge, power and social change over the past half century.” In this session they also emphasized the importance of having everyone and not just women involved in the movement.

This conference inspired critical reflection within me. After this conference now I can look at gender issues with a more global knowledge and lens. I understand more about how we can help one another to build a better world, while respecting one’s place. I understand that this respect sometimes means having to listen and at times follow if we are asked instead of only taking the charge to lead and demand. It is important to remember how far the women’s movement has come, to recognize the progress and to appreciate all those who have helped us along the way. Just as importantly, we must remember that we have a long journey in front of us and we must keep fighting for all women.

FullSizeRender

Our march throughout New York City

 

Clothesline Project at UMBC

The Clothesline Project is a program that started back in 1990 and has been established “to address the issue of violence against women. It is a vehicle for women affected by violence to express their emotions by decorating a shirt.” Here at UMBC we do this project twice a year – in October for Relationship Violence Awareness Month and in April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Survivors of sexual violence are welcome to decorate a shirt with their feelings and message. Then the shirts are anonymously hanged on a clothesline display, shoulder to shoulder in Commons Main Street “to be viewed by others as testimony to the problem of violence against [anyone].”

For the past three years that I have been part of UMBC community I have seen this project and its strong impact on the community. This is a great chance for anyone who has experienced violence to share their stories in a safe setting, and also practice self-care. Making these shirts is an act of therapy in its own way. Last semester for the first time, I made my own shirt. I shared my story with many people without putting my name out there. I was able to take a story out of my chest and feel so much lighter immediately.

As a student staff member at the Women’s Center and a Resident Assistant, I had the privilege of being involved with this project more closely. Last semester with the help of the Women’s Center and some of my Resident Assistant co-workers, we were able to hold another t-shirt-making event in the residential area. This event has happened before in the residential halls, but seeing the work in person was such a powerful experience. Seeing people coming in, making shirts, and sharing their stories shows how they trust us, which challenges us to provide the best support we can as Resident Assistants and Women’s Center community members.

I personally believe having this project on campus is a great opportunity for our UMBC community members to express their feelings about their experiences with sexual and gender-based violence.

There will be a Clothesline Project display on Wednesday, April 30th from 5:15-7:15 in the Harbor Hall court yard.  Shirts and supplies will be available for any survivors who wish to create a shirt that tells their own story. Shirt-making for the Clothesline Project is also available year-round in the Women’s Center.

My Journey to Claim the Feminist Label

It wasn’t long ago when I became interested in equality for everyone and started to research this area more in depth. When I moved to United States five years ago my knowledge about feminism and equality was so basic, and I never identified as a feminist. Two years after my arrival to the United States I started my higher education at a community college and would go to school with my aunt. She is an activist for women’s rights and those car rides to campus were full of amazing conversions, questions from me and answers from her. We would talk about many different topics – from education to women’s right, to gender equality, to kids in abusive families. After a year of these amazing car rides I came to the conclusion that I am interested in the topic of equality for everyone, women’s rights, and violence against women and children.

Meanwhile I started working with a foundation in Iran that works with disadvantaged women to help empower themselves and gain control over their lives. After working with these girls and expanding my knowledge about women’s rights and equality, I decided to continue my education in the social sciences. I decided to major in Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology and it wasn’t until my first course in Women’s Studies that I realized feminism is for me too – but what did that mean for me? I will never forget at some point in the middle of the semester, my professor asked us who identifies as a feminist. I kept my hand in the middle – I wasn’t sure! I thought I knew but I didn’t. As the class progressed, though, and as we talked about this topic more, I did realize I could and would claim the feminist label.

With this identification, though, I realized that the way I define my feminism is different than the way my family members, my classmates, friends, sister and others might define it. When I say I am feminist I mean I am an activist for equality for everyone regardless of gender, race, age, etc. I am saying that I want to promote human rights for everyone – especially those who are from underrepresented identities. “Coming out”  as a someone who is interested in women’s studies was not easy to some of my family members, especially my dad. We live thousands of miles away and our only way of communication is through phone calls. When I told him that I added Gender and Women’s Studies as a second major, a long silence came after. He wasn’t impress or happy about my decision, but he did not stop me at all. Later on I realized that when I told him about my second major, that it implied to him that I was also saying that I am a feminist. His view of feminism and feminists was vastly different than mine, though – he saw it as breaking away from cultural gender norms, and at the same time breaking traditional family values in a damaging way .  Yet, as the months passed by, every time that he would call he would ask me to share something with him about my women’s studies classes. We started having long conversations and arguments on the phone regarding women’s right and women’s issues. They were long, fascinating, and surprisingly enjoyable. Over time, he would often put the phone on speaker just so other people around him would benefit from our talk! It was great to see that how his support for my interests had grown by simply just having conversations with him.

During the same time that this evolution with my father was taking place, I began to discover TED Talks. These short videos would soon become one of my favorite things. One that has stood out to me that most is titled “This Isn’t Her Mother’s Feminism.”  I can relate to her story and her path of getting involved in activism and feminism. I love the diversity of thoughts that she bring up here. How I define and see feminism might be very different of how my classmates or professor defines it, just as it may be different for my various family members.  I believe seeing and understanding these differences, are needed and at the same time beautiful.

What has been your experience of coming to feminism? When did you realize your first identified as a feminist? What conflicts or bridges has this created for you between family members or friends? Share your thoughts via comments… or better yet, join us in person for the International Women’s Day Brown Bag Discussion* on Wednesday, March 10th at 12pm in the Women’s Center!

*Please note this event is co-sponsored with the English Language Institute at UMBC and due to the cultural norms and expectations of several of the students, this event will be open to those who identify as women only.