It's not always easy being a girl, whether you live in Canada or Afghanistan.
This morning I spoke at a local junior high school on a "Girl Revolution" panel. (With Meghan Swim, pictured on the left, and April Macleod, right.) I'm not going to sugarcoat it—this was a tough crowd. The 100 or so kids shuffled in their seats and talked over me and the other two speakers. When it was time for questions, there were none. My co-presenter April Macleod pointed out that we were the only thing coming between these kids and their lunch. While some in the room showed interest, it was cooler for others to horse around than engage with our messages about following their dreams and how girls (and boys) can be successful in whatever field they decide to pursue provided they work hard, seek help, and learn from their mistakes rather than become defeated by them.
I don't blame the kids. I remember junior high, perhaps a little too acutely. I turned from a kid who loved to make friends, play sports and sing into someone else temporarily. Too old for toys, too young to make many decisions for myself, it was an unsettling age. I acted out in one of my classes and tormented a teacher who I realize now likely had anxiety issues. I also distanced myself from a transfer student who came from India and was obviously isolated. I'm not proud of my behaviour and I do not excuse it. However, it helped me empathize with these kids today.
It's tough to grow up and figure out what you want to do with your life and who you want to be. To feel comfortable enough with yourself that you don't care too much about how other people perceive you. I'm grateful I've settled into a career I enjoy as a writer and editor. But it's more satisfying for me to feel comfortable with who I am. To know myself—both my abilities and limitations, and what makes my soul sing. To not always feel confident, but to feel okay about myself most days.
Last night I attended another an event with a woman I greatly admire, well-known journalist, author and human rights activist Sally Armstrong (pictured, photo by Peter Bregg of Macleans). She came to Mount Saint Vincent University to talk about the future of girls and women in Afghanistan as part of a two-day speaking tour to Nova Scotia.
It's perhaps unfair to compare the plight of girls in Canada to those in Afghanistan yet both groups are going through their own form of "Girl Revolution." Sally talked about how the status of women and the economy are directly related. How the world can no longer afford to oppress half its population. And how each gender is like the wing of a bird, and unless both wings are unbroken the bird is unable to fly.
Sally reminded the audience that change occurs in societies when people engage in the process. When they stand up and say they've had enough of abuse, poverty and barriers to their education, and demand change. She told a story about a 21-year-old woman she met in Kabul who invited girls to a coffeehouse to talk about their rights. She expected three or four to show up. Instead, 75 girls came. The coffeeshop owner heard them talking about equal rights for women and threw them out. They found meeting space elsewhere and have mobilized into an unstoppable force. The group's founder wears a hidden mic when she walks down the street to record the sexist slurs men hurl at her when she walks by, then takes the audio tapes to the local tv station to shame them. She'll use whatever tactics it takes.
We might think that women in Canada aren't oppressed like those in Afghanistan, but the reality is there are women discriminated against in every corner of the world. Let's not forget the murder of four female members of the Shafia family right here in Canada. Killed because they were girls. As Sally pointed out, it's really not a cultural issue. It's a criminal issue. And it's time for all of us to call it out, and be the change. If we're lucky enough to have advantages, to reach out a hand when someone else asks for help.
My efforts at the junior high school today were minimal. But if I have the opportunity to speak in front of kids for 10-15 minutes at a "Girl Revolution" I'm going to take it. Most probably have already forgotten what I said. But there was a girl in a light blue hoodie in the third row who I could tell was listening, and who said she wanted to be a writer, too. If I said anything useful to help this one kid, then I'm satisfied. Efforts made are big and small. Mine are small. Sally's are big. It will take nothing short of a revolution. You go, girls.