This year I experienced International Women’s Day in a Colombian town as an English teacher. All throughout the day my male students came up to me and gave me candy, wishing me a “happy women’s day!” All around me I saw men giving candy and flowers to women. One student was even giving out quotes printed out on little pieces of paper. When he handed me mine, I was expecting to see a quote about the strength of women or about their liberation, but instead printed on the piece of paper was the Minna Antrim quote: “A beautiful woman delights the eye; a wise woman, the understanding; a pure one, the soul.”
The whole day sort of felt like Valentine’s Day, with men showering women with gifts and, as a far as I could tell, no discussion about what International Women’s Day was about and why it was important.
I acknowledge that I’m living in a fairly conservative Colombian town, teaching English at a Catholic university. Up until that afternoon, I hadn’t even planned on addressing the event. But after witnessing an entire day of niceties being tossed around like both literal and figurative candy, I felt that not talking about the importance of the day would be not fulfilling my role as a “cultural ambassador” here.
Going into my English club, armed with quotes by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and discussion questions, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew from previous classes that most people balked at the word feminism, but I had never really tried to break the concept down.
[bctt tweet=”But as soon as I said that these beliefs that everyone acknowledged they held were what feminism was all about, the room tensed.” username=”wearethetempest”]
The class, an almost even split between men and women, unanimously agreed that we have come a long way with women’s rights, but that progress was still needed. Everyone agreed that women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job and that women should get to decide without judgment if they want to be working mothers or not. But as soon as I said that these beliefs that everyone acknowledged they held were what feminism was all about, the room tensed. “Feminism is for women who want to be better than men,” one student said. “Feminism is giving women a bad reputation,” said another.
I consider myself lucky for having grown up in a house in which I learned about feminism. The women’s studies courses I took in college only strengthened my beliefs and opened my mind to concepts like intersectional feminism and the idea that the patriarchy confines both women and men. What my upbringing and education never really forced me to do, however, was make my beliefs palatable to those who might believe in something different.
I felt that this moment with my students was an important one. It was one, if I maneuvered the situation well, that could potentially offer a group of people a new way of thinking.
So instead of dominating the conversation, I forced my students to speak. I asked the women in the classroom about a Colombian custom that I personally can’t stand: catcalling. As soon as I did so, the room seemed to come to life. They hated it, they exclaimed, retelling uncomfortable situations and asking why they couldn’t walk down the street in peace.
[bctt tweet=”I realized that if I maneuvered the situation well, I could potentially offer a group of people a new way of thinking.” username=”wearethetempest”]
After their initial reactions subsided, I turned the questions to the men in the room. Did they know that women felt this way about catcalling? Had they ever asked women what they thought about it? Did they think that catcalling could be considered a social problem and also a reason why we need feminism?
These questions were mostly met with silence and stiff shoulder shrugs. I realize that lack of language to adequately respond may have contributed to the silence. But I also think that the silence signified the confronting of something they had not yet considered, and perhaps the feeling of being threatened by it.
I don’t think I changed anyone’s fundamental beliefs during that conversation club. I think the women in the room left feeling validated about a subject that I don’t get the sense is often discussed. I think the men left feeling a bit attacked, which was not the intention.
But I realized that at the end of the class, my own feminist beliefs were strengthened. And while I may not have changed anyone’s lives, I know all those students left the room thinking about the significance of a day even after that day ended.