Help Women Stand Up for Themselves

Artist Saadia Yasmin (left) poses next to one of her paintings.

Artist Saadia Yasmin (left) poses next to one of her paintings.

April 04, 2013

When asked how young women today could help other women, Niemat Ahmadi, director of Global Partnerships at United to End Genocide and president and founder of the Darfur Women Action Group, answered, “Help women stand up for themselves.” I heard these words along with a roomful of silent women; we had just watched women in Darfur tell their stories of rape, of violence, of horrors most of us couldn’t even imagine. Ahmadi continued, “I shared this video not to discourage you with stories of suffering, but to encourage you with stories of the survivors’ resilience and strength. We need to hear the voices of women around the world. Help women stand up for themselves,” she repeated.

Ahmadi was one of three speakers at the Younger Women’s Task Force Washington (DC) Chapter event held at AAUW for International Women’s Day. She joined Collective Action for Safe Places Co-founder and Executive Director Chai Shenoy, an attorney who has represented sexual assault survivors. Shenoy asked the women in the packed room to raise their hands if they had ever experienced street harassment. Almost everyone raised their hands, myself included. Later, during a break, I heard women sharing personal stories of harassment. I couldn’t help thinking back to the day many years ago when I first experienced sexual harassment, on my commute. It never even occurred to me at the time to tell the police. It was something that “just happened”; “get used to it,” I remember someone telling me. It felt good to hear young women discussing harassment as the crime it is and proposing actions to counteract it the next time. The sad part? That nobody hesitated to think there would be a next time.

“Don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t [stand against harassment]; not just for young women, but for all young people,” said Elisha Dunn-Georgiou, vice president of advocacy at Population Action International. She urged attendants to vote for officials who understand what safety means to a woman, and she said that the challenges women face today need to be approached by the whole community — with equal, responsible partnerships between women and men. I was glad to see several men at this event. Maybe one day there will be equal numbers of both genders in attendance; then we would really get the sense of having come far!

Participants at the International Women’s Day event learn to belly dance with Rania Jaziri.

Participants at the International Women’s Day event learn to belly dance with Rania Jaziri.

We heard from Pashtun artist Saadia Yasmin, whose painting Don’t Marry Me focuses on child marriages as a form of violence against women. Just when my heart felt like it couldn’t take one more story, dancer Rania Jaziri swept into the center of the room and started a wonderful belly dance. It didn’t take long for her to get everyone on their feet and learning the basics, with much laughter shared by all. “Come,” she said, “let’s empower ourselves.”

The takeaway is a universal one: the women in that room overcame the horror to find a renewed sense of purpose. They saw examples of how they could take action, and I heard an uplifting buzz in the room of “Let’s do it.” April is Sexual Violence Awareness Month, and AAUW plans to take a cue from these powerful women’s words, actions, and perseverance. We’ve raised our voices; won’t you join us?

By:   |   April 04, 2013