Empowerment (theoretically).

A candle-lit room, electricity gone, alone with a man twice my age, isolated in the deep hills and forests of a country that is not my own. Sure, I have built, metaphorically speaking, a sense of belonging here. Sort of. But Rwanda is not my home, cannot be my home. This man isn’t Rwandan either; but I don’t trust him. This is his home, he’s been living here for 9 years. I speak nervously. What in the world did I get myself into?

I’m not in any real danger. There are people around. People from all over the world, actually. From Hong Kong, from Slovenia, and even from my country, the United States. It’s an eclectic group of people that found themselves drawn to this particular place, in a cabin-like structure, perched on the top of quite literally, one of a thousand hills.

I do get back to my tent, just outside the cabin, eventually. But, not before I internally scold myself for being vulnerable, voiceless, and far less bold than I would expect of myself.

I tucked myself into a small, red sleeping bag, warm from the flushing blood in my body.

Herein lies the real struggle of women in the world; often, more often than we should, we find ourselves in situations where simply because of dynamics we become voiceless, powerless, senseless. I could have said something, but I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE I COULD.

Friends, this is coming from someone who reads any article about women making progress in any kind of way, in any kind of society. I am pretty sure I included “women’s empowerment advocate” or something like that on my twitter profile. I live for this stuff. And yet, I’m not immune to encountering a minor blip of dis empowerment. I’m not pretending, by any stretch of the imagination, to fight the battles that some of the girls I know have faced. I haven’t been blatantly discriminated against (for a while, anyway) or suffered continual disfranchisement or abuse. What I am saying is that our structures run so deep, that they pervade even in the small corners of power in relationships and situations. I have preached self-confidence, but what happens when the element of confidence becomes a moot point, and you are quieted simply because of how the world works?

*

This got me thinking. And thinking some more. It makes me believe even more ardently in a dual & multi-pronged approach to empowering women – at all levels. If we are going to teach women their rights, their abilities, their dignity, than we should be doing the same for young men; not only encouraging them to see the value in lifting up women in society, but pushing men to see that their value, and women’s values, can intrinsically work together. It’s not enough to jump around and yell about “yes we can” when really, no you can’t. We have to actually make it possible. We need men, women, power structures, attitudes, and structures to make the shift too. That’s the thing about change in the world – we all have to have a piece of the pie.

*

I see it happening all the time. Women could be talking in a room, loudly, freely, until a man walks in. Voices are quieted, the transfer of power almost immediate. Rwanda may have the most proportion of women parliament members in the world, but I don’t care what the statistics tell us. Rwanda is very much a patriarchal society.

Men, sorry for the generalization, can often do what they want.

Let me give you an example of what happens when I get onto a public bus, nearly every morning.

Inevitably, everyone stares. This is normal. I have developed a habit of always carrying my IPOD and music. Yeah, I like greeting and saying “hello” to people, but to stay sane, I also don’t want to hear all of the commentary about my clothes, my skin, or how rich I am. That’s the downfall of speaking Kinyarwanda, I suppose, sometimes you wish you didn’t understand the words being spoken – especially when they are about you.

The staring is intense and I can feel it all over me. It’s normal, I tell myself. And it is, people in this culture tend to stare at anything. Just a couple weeks a fire broke out downtown and they couldn’t get a fire truck through because so many people gathered around – to stare.

So, I don’t feel so bad. Until I catch the eyes of some people, usually a man, roaming with his eyes in places I would rather he did not go. Women tend to look at me with a sense of scrutiny or amazement – usually because of my long hair. It’s different.

But men. Beady eyes survey, look, and I become uncomfortable. I cross my legs, very much aware of every square inch of skin they can see. I hate when this happens. Mostly because I feel like there is a part of me that can’t protect myself; I can’t stop them. I feel objectified. It sounds dramatic, perhaps, but when this happens daily, it does begin to affect you.

What kind of annoys me, more than anything, is the social dynamics of when I am traveling, hanging out with, or moving around with a man.

Let’s take the time Sarah, her boyfriend, Marshall, and I went hiking on Mt. Kigali.

We went to the base of the hill, climbed up it, and then weaved within a bunch of the other hills, mostly just for the hell of it. It was hot, but it was fun. Sarah and I noticed about half-way through that people were honestly, not paying that much attention to us. And if they were, it was far more subdued and less obnoxious than usual. Few comments of “sheri” (my love) came our way and I was only half-joking when I said it was because Marshall, a strong, tall, imposing Marine, was walking with us. Well, guess what? It’s true. I thought back to when my dad was here and hanging out with my guy friends – true. True. True. People are intimidated by men and because of this, they hold back, using much more restraint. Which on one hand, thrills me beyond belief. On the other hand, I find it irritating. Why can’t that happen when I’m walking alone? Why, when I seem most vulnerable, do situations like the ones above arise? I want to command respect no matter what. But, this is not a reality that we are always dealt, is it?

*

To promote women’s empowerment, we must first encourage and stand by gender equality. I know, gender equality, it’s becoming one of the most over-used development go-to terms. Nobody really seems to know what it looks like in practice, but I think it’s simply valuing both genders, recognizing that men and women are different, but that it’s a good thing. Society shouldn’t be full of a bunch of robots that are the same, think the same, and have the same abilities. Gender equality implies equal opportunity to expression and capacity. Here’s the kicker, though: I am thinking from my particular structure of understanding. I’m an American, and so naturally “expression” along with innovation and creativity are values in society that I can list off without really much thought. But, I live in a country that actually values other things far before expression: order, security, tradition, and more than anything, respect.

Can we achieve gender equality without an emphasis on expression?

I don’t know. But, I would love your thoughts.

That’s just what I was thinking about today. On the bus. After a man looked at me the way many seem to do.

But, don’t get the wrong idea. As usual, there is reason to hope.

Just last week, at a church service out near Kigali International Airport, I sat next to a 60-something year old man who actually stood up, clapping, and hollering for the women pastor that had come to preach. I was a bit amazed by this demonstration of appreciation; so, of course, I had to ask some questions.

He explained to me that this woman was young, fearless, and had aimed to preach the Word of God for many years. Other churches had turned her away – women preaching was a big “no-no”. But not here. The congregation loved her. I pressed him further, asking his personal take about women in the church.

“We can all learn together. We all have something to share – whether you are a man or woman. She brings us energy. Of course we love her. She is a gift from God.”

Learning from each other. Maybe gender equality and empowerment for humans is less about expression and more about learning. Again, I don’t know. I’m still trying to sort it all out.

But, I do believe it’s possible.

*

4 comments

  1. shapeofthingstoni · July 25, 2014

    Excellent post!

    I find the gender inequality stuff really tricky here in Peru too, but I imagine Rwanda would be even more challenging. You are brave and soing amazing things.

    Like

    • heathermnewell · August 21, 2014

      This is quite late to respond, but thank you for your comment! I do appreciate it.

      What are you doing in Peru?

      Like

      • shapeofthingstoni · August 21, 2014

        I’m working as a professional volunteer with the local natioanl parks service, developing environmental management and compliance processes and improving capacity in evaluating impacts to aquatic ecosystems (I like the second bit best!).

        Like

      • shapeofthingstoni · September 3, 2014

        I’m working as a “professional volunteer” in management of protected natural areas, under the Ministry of the Environment. It sounds very exciting but it’s largely sitting at a desk and developing procedures and work processes. :-p Still glad I’m here though.

        Like

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