Image credit: Evening Standard
Sarah Everard’s abduction on March 3 in London was a jarring reminder of the threats and intimidation that women continuously face around the world. Her later death at the hands of a police officer has sparked a renewed interest in women’s rights and what steps men can take as part of the movement. Many high school students have been key leaders throughout this time, and continue to be involved in efforts for equality. The Covid-19 pandemic has limited in-person events such as protests, and has led to online platforms being the main source for organizing and information. Primarily, many students are posting important information on social media about the violence women face and sharing personal experiences online. Guides are being made highlighting small actionable steps men can take to make women feel safe, and cities are reconsidering policies to make streets physically safer for women to use, such as increasing street lighting. Additionally, different protests and vigils are attracting diverse audiences of people frustrated with society’s treatment of women today.
However, what has seemed like a collective effort for equality has also exposed deep divides between different genders. While women continue to forge a collective identity through unity-building activities, many have also expressed dismay at the apparent silence of some men over these important issues. The ongoing debate about the idea that “not all men” are part of the problem has shown a clear disconnect. It can be difficult for men to understand and truly empathize with the challenges that women face, such as the gender pay gap. This renewed interest in women’s rights has raised multiple questions, such as whether silence really places one on the side of the oppressor and what it truly means to be a woman in today’s society.
Around the Bay Area, many high school students have recently led different efforts to achieve gender equality. Many students are sharing personal, private experiences of discrimination and sexual assault. After seeing others share their stories, many published their own accounts in an outpouring of solidarity online. A common theme in these posts was the importance of simply sharing these stories with others, even if that would not change what happened. Some created Google Forms to anonymously share experiences, and others supported survivors by reposting their posts.
The focus on women’s rights has also led to a closer look at instances of gender violence at Washington. The co-presidents of the Women’s Empowerment club, Juniors Masooma Ali and Insha Syed, discussed their thoughts on the steps students and staff can take both at school and online to combat discrimination. Ali talked about how “In the beginning, once one girl posted her story others got the courage to come out and say ‘This has happened to me as well.’ Many women realized that they shouldn’t have to be ashamed of their experiences of sexual assault, and I think that means a lot.” Syed shared her advice for how women can best encourage men to engage in efforts for equality, saying “I always tell my male friends that their moms are the reason they’re here, and if they respect them or a sister/girlfriend/etc they should respect other women too. It’s not just a women’s fight alone, and it comes down to basic humanity and empathy.” Ali added that “It’s mind-boggling that we have to remind men to support women.”
Both listed small steps men can take to support women, Ali saying “They should first believe women, and not always call women’s accusations fake. Taking time to hear women out and understanding the truth is necessary to be more empathetic and sympathetic.” Syed added that “A lot of men get judged if they support women, and it’s important to not fall for that peer pressure. Some of my guy friends got made fun of even for posting on their Instagram stories, so it shows a lot about the culture we’re in.” Syed and Ali described personal experiences of the struggles they have facedas women: “Cat-calling is a big thing that’s affected me, and I’ve had to excessively cover my body because of it. Girls shouldn’t have to dress according to how men will react, and it goes on to make women feel like pieces of meat.” Ali added that “Women have to prove their worth more than men do, whether it’s in the workplace, classroom, body image, etc. The wage gap, the stereotypes single mothers face, and other societal pressures on women are all signs of this.”
As officers of Women’s Empowerment, both co-presidents highlighted the important work their club is doing during this time. “While our club has always had focus groups on these topics, a lot more people have started coming in the past month,” Syed shared. “At our meetings, we encourage young girls to share their stories, and recently we had a Jamboard session with everyone. Even though it makes me sad to hear about so many young girls being assaulted, you have to get these stories out or it kills you inside.” Ali described how “Women’s Empowerment is essentially a safe space where you can share your opinions and be supported. At Washington, our small group plants a seed to change on a larger scale.” Lastly, Ali and Syed discussed how the movement for women’s rights relates directly to the daily actions of Washington students and staff. “The dress code definitely tells women that they need to cover themselves because of their gender, but men don’t have that,” Ali said. “There have also been so many incidents of female students at Washington being inappropriately touched or having to face rude comments. People need to realize that cat-calling happens at school as well, and that’s why it’s important girls report this to teachers.” Ali notes that “There have been experiences at Washington that have made me feel uncomfortable. Even online, we still have internet trolls Zoom-bombing Women’s Empowerment meetings and making nasty comments on our Instagram.”
At first glance, framing the women’s rights movement around how men can be a part of it can seem counterproductive. More recently, however, the quote by Desmond Tutu that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” has changed how people view those who are silent over issues such as women’s rights. There is a consensus that accepting the status quo is often a privilege that only those who aren’t oppressed have. Today’s online environment makes it easy for people to remove themselves from neutrality and do even small acts to achieve equality. But, seemingly in response to this analysis, the point is brought up that “not all men” are actively engaged in violence against women. In interviews, many women had different responses. Ali explained that “The women’s rights movement isn’t a personal attack [on men]. You don’t have to say ‘not all men.’ Just prove it through your actions. Women criticize ‘not all men’ because it comes from a place of anger, harassment, and more. It just feels like saying ‘All Lives Matter’ in response to ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Two students at Washington have taken a unique approach to issues of gender violence today. As varsity parliamentary debaters in Washington Speech & Debate, Renee Diop and Rhea Jain regularly argue in competitive debate rounds at monthly tournaments that we as a society should abolish the structure of gender. They advocate that society should adopt “gender nihilism”: the movement to abolish gender by rejecting its meaning, knowledge, and function. This would include rejecting the gender binary and all labels that work within it and outside of it (male, female, nonbinary, pronouns, etc).
Why should we abolish gender? As they write, “Gender is not a naturalized feature of life, but rather a structure weaponized by European settlers to control bodies. Many Indigenous cultures recognize and accept gender diversity. Bodies are coercively assigned a gender at birth, and [society] demands they conform.” In an interview, Jain described further how “From the very minute we’re born, everyone is told that they are one gender – male or female. Rather than being a biological trait though, gender is a structure created by society which forces every single one of us, no matter our identity, to conform to certain boxes and traits. For example, women are told to act in specific ways: they should like pink, wear dresses, attempt to please men, and bear the burden of childcare. Gender oppresses ALL of us: it tells us that we need to act, behave, dress, and feel certain ways according to who we are ‘naturally.’ Everywhere we turn, gender is staring us in the face: from commercials, to who you’re supposed to date, and even to parents forcing their ideas of gender on their children.” She later added that “Gender goes beyond individual suffering. It allows violence against people who don’t conform to societal norms, such as how it causes extreme harm to the LGBT+ community. Instead of accepting this structure and trying to make gradual progress by “breaking” gender norms, the first step we must do is to understand that this structure exists, and it affects all of us in different but oppressive ways.”
While abolishing the structure of gender is a monumental task, Jain elaborated on how she hopes to initially share this information and educate others. As she stated, having discussions on these topics and problems within society may not directly lead to abolishment of gender, but it gives people insight into what the structure of gender is and how it affects us. As a club officer of Washington Speech & Debate, she hopes to share this argument and knowledge with new debaters and members alike.
In the intersection of a new presidency, the pandemic, and the racial justice movement, the current push for women’s rights is notable in many different ways. Students seem to play a vital role in introducing new ideas and countering the stigma of sharing personal stories of discrimination. Their work has led to a diverse audience of people supporting their movement. The women’s rights movement of 2021 is no longer exclusively for a certain group of people. It is a movement for all.
If you or someone you know has experienced or is at risk of sexual violence, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). Help is available.