As part of National Volunteers’ Week, we are sharing a guest blog by one of our alumni volunteers, Aamena talking about her experience of returning to her old school.
On International Women’s Day 2020, my old secondary school invited Migena (also a former student) and I to deliver a series of workshops aimed at exploring the theme of feminism and female empowerment to Year 10 and 11. The school is an all-girls school situated in the heart of East London. Being an avid feminist myself, I was extremely excited at the prospect of engaging in a range of passionate and lively discussions concerning women’s rights, while celebrating women all over the globe.
The day came and we were faced with a room of 30 students on a Monday morning, scary stuff. As the girls took their seats and settled down for the 2 hours ahead, we asked, ‘who in this room would call themselves a feminist?’ Some of the girls needed a little more time to open up, but the responses we did receive were a little unexpected. No girl raised her hand and said she would call herself a feminist. When we began to explore the initial reasons behind this, we were faced with varying responses, one of which stood out to me the most; one of the girls said she believed ‘nothing will change, and we need to start accepting it is what it is.’ Amongst the other responses were, ‘it’s hard to care about something which doesn’t affect me personally’ and ‘I just don’t think I know enough about it.’
To be completely honest, these responses were quite different to the range we had expected, and we quickly realised we would need to shift the conversation. Throughout the two hours, we discussed a range of issues, from body hair, to the absent female presence in leadership and positions of power. The young women quickly opened up and became fully engaged, allowing us to host some very heated and passionate debates on controversial topics.
As the girls became more comfortable with us, they began to share stories of times when they felt they had been discriminated against because of their gender. It was surprising to hear personal stories of discrimination from the girls who initially stated that it was ‘hard to care about something which doesn’t affect me personally.’ At the start of the session, they did not think that they had ever been put in a disadvantaged position because of their gender. Until we explored the gender issue, shifted the conversation to focus on us, and zoomed in on our own daily lives, did the girls realise that actually, they had been faced with so much unfairness already.
What I learnt from the day:
When the girls first found out we would be talking about feminism, the initial mood in the classroom was already one of boredom. As they attended an all- girls school, they were constantly hearing the word ‘feminism’ being thrown about, but few girls actually understood what the word meant. They were tired of being told they should all be feminist while having no idea what a feminist should be. Being in their shoes not long ago, we could sympathise with their lack of understanding, and the girls began to take an interest quicker than we had expected and we could clearly see a shift in mood in the classroom.
From the stories, the comments, and the opinions that these girls shared, it was clear that so many of them had been victims of gender discrimination at least once in their lives. They’ve grown up in a society where gender discrimination is so normalised that they weren’t thinking twice when it affected them personally.
The girls started to speak out against such an unjust society and began to pledge things they would do to progress the movement towards gender equality. By the end of the session, I was looking at a group of 30 proud feminists and it was beautiful. All it took was for someone to reach out and tell them they deserved so much more than having to feel like they were second best. Looking at these young women with their powerful voices, their new pledges, and their support for one another gave me such immense feelings of hope.
I left the school with a feeling of accomplishment and a huge smile on my face; today I got to encourage young women to use their powerful voices for the better.
Aamena Ismail is a university student who volunteered at Sarah Bonnell School
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