Thursday, March 20

My Video is "Upworthy"!

We have some VERY exciting news today: my video has been posted on Upworthy!

A few months ago, I reached out to a couple of the staff over at Upworthy on Twitter:



and last week, Rossalyn Warren responded:



I have been following Upworthy on social media for awhile now and have been exposed to some pretty amazing content through their posts. I couldn't be more pleased that they have chosen to highlight the important issues facing women worldwide by posting and promoting my video. Thank you so much to Rossalyn and the Upworthy team--you're the best!






Tuesday, February 4

"I'm Just Joking": Why I Take Oppressive Language Seriously and You Should Too

Below is an essay written by my younger sister about the importance and power of language and its direct link to oppression. Maybe I'm biased, but I thought this essay was beautifully written, perfectly articulated and extremely relevant.

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“I’m not a feminist, I just believe that both genders should be treated equally.”

“Tell me, why are girls so mean?”

“Are you on your period, is that why you’re mad?”

“Quit being such a feminazi, we’re just joking.”

Language and oppression have been so entangled in the human mind for so long that we start to forget just how powerful words can be. Especially among adolescents, a sense of invincibility that comes from being a part of a generation that is viewed as tolerant and progressive leads to unabashed use of racist and sexist slang and comments under the assumption that it’s “just a joke” and can’t do any real harm since they “don’t really think like that.”

Among my friends, a diverse group of extremely intelligent, well-educated teens, sexist language has become as accepted as any other form of communication. They call each other derogatory names for female genitalia, they make hateful, degrading sexual comments about our English teacher when she assigns what they think is too much homework, and they dismiss any backlash about this behavior as overreacting or PMSing. They won’t hear any criticism because as far as they’re concerned, if the right intention is buried beneath their slurs, they can say whatever they want.

What they don’t understand, what they refuse to accept, is that by making sexist language acceptable, they are making sexism itself acceptable. When they make a comment on my friend’s breasts instead of listening to what she has to say, they aren’t just making a joke—they are actually objectifying her. When they use a pejorative term for vagina to call each other weak or cowards, they are perpetuating the connection between women themselves and weakness or cowardice. They think that since they weren’t intending their words to be oppressive, they can’t be harmful. But they are.

After all, language is the basis of how we think. We think in words. And if those words continue to imply that women are less than men, we will, as a society, continue to think that way. In George Orwell’s 1984, the Party realized how much influence language has on thought. They created a new language, newspeak, which changed and eliminated words that reflected views opposing the Party’s goals, such as freedom and equality. The idea was that without the knowledge of these words, without the ability to express these ideas through language, people would not be able to think in a way that conflicted with Party ideals.

Photo from Flickr user Jason llagan
The same concept applies to sexist language. This is not to say we should forget or ignore sexist slang altogether—of course, in a democracy, it is necessary that the full range of expression be accessible. But it does illustrate the idea that as long as sexist language is allowed to be so pervasively commonplace, sexist thought will also be considered acceptable.

An interesting discrepancy I’ve found amongst my peers, with regards to their perception of what it is acceptable to say, is that in recent years they have become admirably averse to using homophobic slang—while use of the n-word and misogynistic language have become ubiquitous. The basic explanation behind this disparity, as far as I can tell, is that the fight against sexuality-based discrimination is happening right now, and visibly. Gay marriage, LGBT portrayal in the media, sexuality-related hate crimes—these are all major topics of discussion and activism at the moment, so people recognize that in order to make progress in the present, we have to cut out the offensive language. On the other hand, kids think that the fights for women and blacks are over. All of the major “checkpoints” have, in their minds, been passed: voting rights, interracial marriage, female congresspeople, black president. So, apparently, we don’t have to be careful any longer: we can make sexist and racist jokes because sexism and racism don’t really exist anymore.

But the fight isn’t over. As long as my cousin is paid less than the man she trained for the same job, as long as my female classmate thinks Hillary Clinton would have gone no where had she not “clung” to her husband, and as long as “getting laid” in high school brings a boy praise but a girl ridicule, we still have a long way to go.

One of the greatest obstacles to the feminist struggle against sexism, however, is the word “feminist” itself. The word has been demonized to such a degree that for the ignorant, it has come to refer only to the supposed man-hating, female supremacy radicals that the media and the internet love to portray but who don’t really exist in large numbers. Feminism, a word that comes from a long history in which securing equality has meant elevating of the status of women, has been grossly misinterpreted—often intentionally by those who would wish to silence the movement—making it seem extremist and hypocritical, when it actually reflects the views of most intelligent, modern people.

Photo from Flickr user Steve Rhodes
This vilification of the word has lead to a contempt for the whole idea of gender equality and the people who try to promote it. The use of “feminist” as an insult dismisses and marginalizes the ideas behind feminism, which are otherwise difficult to contest—and it is not used derogatorily only by blatant sexists who actually oppose feminist ideas. Those who otherwise consider themselves proponents of equality but are accused of sexism or sexist language, uncomfortable with being criticized and made to feel unprogressive, also tend to dismiss their critics as crazy or militant. They make fun of “fanatical feminists” to make themselves feel not bigoted but merely moderate, when in truth, feminism itself should be considered a unifying, centrist movement. Instead, sexism takes the mainstream, and feminism is banished to the fringe.

The world likes to think it has conquered sexism, but until we can put our mouths where our money is we can never really change societal attitudes towards women. Sexist language is just as harmful to the ideal of permanent gender equality as any other big-ticket issue; the difference is that it can be fought on the small scale, by anyone. There is no excuse for devaluing women through speech, regardless of whether it was said in anger or meant as a joke, because it only functions to strengthen the ongoing, underlying belief in the inferiority of women. Even when all the tangible, measurable pillars of institutional sexism have been taken down, the feminist battle cannot be won until the world truly believes—and can articulate its belief—in the power and value of women.

Saturday, January 25

My Post on Winnovating

Hello all!

Have you seen the post I wrote recently for Winnovating, an awesome blog that highlights women who are innovating in their field? I wrote about Melissa Banigan, a truly inspiring woman who is "winnovating" how we give advice to teenage girls through her upcoming anthology "Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self". I've included an excerpt from my post below, and you can see the whole thing by following this link to the Winnovating website.


. . . With such a dearth of comprehensive, accurate sexual health education, many girls turn to outside sources for information. Unfortunately, these “outside sources” tend to be sensationalized TV shows, gossip at sleepovers or in the locker room, and Urban Dictionary or other not-quite-scientific sites online. And even if, in the best case scenario, a teen girl does manage to pick up a more informative guidebook on puberty, sex, and other relevant topics, the standard advice books for teen girls on the market today barely skim the surface of some of the more important issues girls face, including HIV, depression and body dysmorphia.

Melissa Banigan, a fiction novelist, editor, travel blogger, marketer and single mother, thinks girls around the world deserve a lot better. To address this problem, Melissa started a project called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self, an anthology that will consist of letters by fifty women from around the world writing advice to their thirteen-year-old selves about entering womanhood.

“Unlike many advice books for teens that only gloss over our bodies and women’s health,” says Melissa, “this book candidly talks about sex, HIV/AIDS and the clitoris. Letters also discuss female genital mutilation, genocide, rape and a variety of other topics so often seen in the news, but rarely discussed in classrooms. The book won’t be delicate. Instead, it will treat the young women reading it like strong, intelligent people who are capable of making their own decisions.” . . .



Perhaps it shouldn’t be innovative in 2014 to talk openly about the bodies, lives and minds of real women and girls*, but the truth is, much of the information girls receive about womanhood is incomplete, misleading, or even harmful to their health and self esteem. The conversations (or lack thereof) about women’s bodies in our media and society today give girls the impression that there is something inherently wrong with or shameful about our female selves. Melissa’s project subverts that silence and sheds light on these important issues, empowering girls with the knowledge they need to approach womanhood confidently and successfully.

Make sure to check out Melissa’s Indiegogo campaign and follow the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self project online.

Thursday, September 19

Important Announcements on Changing the World

Hello all! It's been awhile since I've written—I just started my third semester of college, and I've been busy, busy, busy! But there are two very important things I would like to talk to you about today.

The first is an awesome organization that reached out to me recently to tell me about the amazing work they are doing in the areas of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity in developing countries.


As you may have guessed, the issue of maternal and infant health around the world is incredibly important to me. Women and Children First is an international development agency based in the UK whose mission is “to improve the health and wellbeing of women, girls and children in poor and marginalised communities.” And there is much improvement needed in this arena: according to Women and Children First's website, “Between 250,000 and 343,000 women and three million newborn babies die each year in pregnancy and childbirth or soon afterwards,” and “99% of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, making maternal mortality the health statistic with the largest disparity between developed and developing countries.” One way that Women and Children First addresses this issue is through community mobilization, particularly women's groups. As Molly Melching at Tostan and many other organizations have proven, empowering communities to institute necessary change themselves is a highly effective—perhaps the most highly effective—way to bring about sustainable, lasting change. Please take a moment to check out this wonderful organization and see how you can get involved in changing the lives of women and children around the world.

WaCF has a beautiful collection of photos on their Flickr page

Another beautiful photo from WaCF's Flickr

A women's group in Kamar Dangi, Faridpur

The second important announcement: don't forget to register now and put your International Day of the Girl (IDG) event on the map for this October 11th! Join thousands around the world to celebrate the power of the girl on this day. October 11th happens to be my birthday (:D), so I am planning a birthday party full of video screenings, discussion, and, of course, cake!, with some of my closest friends and family.

Post in the comments below or holler at me on Facebook or Twitter and tell me about the exciting plans YOU have for the second-annual IDG. I would love to share you creative and impactful IDG ideas on my various social media outlets, so please let me know!

Wednesday, August 7

"It Only Takes a Girl Like Gabriella"

This summer, I am interning in New York City with 10x10 - Girl Rising. I've been blogging about my internship experience for Tulane's Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching, and you can read my first three posts here, here and here. A week or so ago, 10x10 wrote a blog post about me for their official website, which I have copied below. I actually found out about this internship over a year ago when someone from 10x10 saw my video online and asked me to apply—and boy, am I glad I did. This has been one of the most rewarding summers of my life, and I really feel like I've grown as a person during my time with 10x10. This is my second-to-last week here, and I'll definitely be sad to go.

Anyway, like I said, I copied the blog post below (or you can read it on 10x10's website here—theirs has cooler formatting). I rather like the title. If you've been reading my blog or following me on Facebook or Twitter for awhile, much of it will be old news. However, there are a few new tidbits mixed in there, including my change of major and some of my hobbies. Enjoy!

IT ONLY TAKES A GIRL LIKE GABRIELLA

Since she’s been volunteering with us here at Girl Rising, I’ve gotten to know a truly inspirational girl this summer—Gabriella Runnels.

And she’s involved in the campaign for girls’ education in a unique way. What started as reading and creating a YouTube video for a scholarship to Tulane University has developed into what Gabriella describes as a deep “passion for social justice.” Her interest in girls’ issues could not be more genuine, and I took a little time to hear her story.

Q: How did you first become interested in girls’ issues, like women’s health, child marriage, and education?

Gabriella: When I’ve been asked this question in the past, I always cite a June 2011 National Geographic article called “Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides”. Reading that article on the couch in my house, crying my eyes out, was when I learned that in some places in the world, girls are married as young as seven years old. That article inspired me to do more research on my own, which led to me uncovering shocking information about bride burnings, female genital mutilation, and other injustices girls suffer around the world.

However, I think my passion for girls’ rights goes back farther than the summer before my senior year of high school. Although I hadn’t yet learned about all of the ways in which girls are struggling around the world, part of me has always felt connected to girls everywhere. I always cherished my female friends and my two sisters, and my parents raised me to believe that girls are capable of everything that boys are. So when I learned about these issues surrounding girls’ health and education around the world, my fierce belief in the power of girls came to the surface, and I knew I had found my passion.

Q: How would you describe the filming process for “It Only Takes a Girl”?

Gabriella: Producing “It Only Takes a Girl” was an extremely collaborative process. First of all, I had to make dozens of large, handmade signs. My sister Sierra was so helpful, spending hours filling in big letters with black and red permanent marker. Then came the filming. Almost fifty women and girls from my community appear in my video, and they were all so supportive and happy to participate. In terms of actually filming, my other sister, Celeste, actually did most of the camera work. When it came to editing the video clips, my mom, a very tech-savvy woman, was a great help. I couldn’t have created this video without the help of dozens of women, and I am so grateful for all of their support on this project.

Q: What inspired you to create your video? Did you ever imagine that it would go as viral as it did, with over 400,000 views?

Gabriella: I actually made the video for a scholarship project to Tulane University in New Orleans. The guidelines were basically to create something that showcased who I am and what I care about—and I care about the education of girls around the world. My mom was actually the one who suggested I make a video. I decided that in my movie, I would start by telling the story of child brides, then I’d present a variety of facts on girls in developing countries, and finally I’d end with a positive message of a hopeful future. I posted my video to Facebook with a private YouTube link, thinking no one but my friends and family would be interested in viewing it anyway. To my surprise, a lot of people started sharing the link on Facebook, and after a couple hundred views I decided to make the video public. After a week, the viewership had climbed to 100,000, and today my video has over 400,000 views. Having my video go viral has been a humbling experience. I never expected it to happen, but I am so pleased that this important message about educating girls has reached so many people.

Q: Now that you’ve earned your scholarship, what are you studying at Tulane?

Gabriella: My ultimate goal in life is to make a real difference for girls around the world. I entered Tulane as a Public Health major, thinking it might be the best path to making the kind of change I am so passionate about. However, I realized toward the end of my first year that the most valuable thing I can do is figure out a way to apply my skills to my passion for girls’ education. I have always been good at math, and I have been curious lately about how financial motivations and economic environments affect barriers to girls’ education. I recently switched into an Economics major with a Public Health minor—so we’ll see how that goes!

Q: What else do you like to do at school and in your free time?

Gabriella: I play the harp for Tulane’s orchestra and concert band, and this spring I participated in the Tulane production of the Vagina Monologues. I am part of my university’s campus programming group, and I joined several clubs that focus on feminism, social justice and service. In my free time, I write for my blog or watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I also love spending time with my family—I’m glad my college isn’t too far from home!

Q: This summer you’re volunteering with us at Girl Rising, which is so exciting! Are you currently doing any other work outside of Girl Rising to fuel your interest in girls’ issues?

Gabriella: I worked as an outreach coordinator for More Than Me when they were competing in the Chase Community Giving Awards for the chance to win $1 million. They are a great organization that helps get girls in West Point, Liberia off the streets and into school—and they actually did end up winning the money! I am also a Generation Know ambassador with U by Kotex and Girls for a Change. As an ambassador, I have committed to busting myths and eliminating shame surrounding girls’ periods and their bodies. I am also an advisory board member for the What’s Your Brave? book project Take 5 for Your Dreams, which encourages girls to be courageous and ambitious. Finally, I keep my “It Only Takes a Girl” campaign going through Twitter, Facebook, and even Pinterest.

Q: What do you think you’ll be doing ten years from now?

Gabriella: Ten years from now I’d love to be an economic analyst for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I really respect the work that organization does with development, and Melinda Gates is one of my biggest role models. A successful businesswoman, a mom, and a social justice icon—she’s a triple threat. Plus, I’m fascinated by the economics of development and nonprofit work, and I think that kind of job would be a perfect combination of my mathematical mind and my passion for social justice.

Q: What’s one piece of advice you would give to girls who want to make a positive difference in the world?

Gabriella: I want to remind girls that they are powerful—that it really does only take one girl to make a difference. As we say at Girl Rising, “One girl with courage is a revolution.” My advice to girls is never to underestimate your own power or abilities. The future of our world lies with you, so rise up and lead the way.


Gabriella is a great example of how one can quickly become an integral part of the movement for girls’ education. I feel lucky to work with such motivated people like her every day at Girl Rising, and I am excited to hear about the differences Gabriella will be making in the future.

By Sarah OhanesianDIGITAL MEDIA INTERN

Tuesday, June 25

Voting Rights Act Provision Struck Down

The Supreme Court 5-4 decision to repeal the part of the Voting Rights Act that dictates which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws seems to have been based on the argument that this provision is outdated, that states and cities that have to ask permission before altering their voting laws are being "punished for the sins of many decades ago." But how many decades ago was it that three men were murdered for trying to register black voters—that police beat hundreds of people marching for Civil Rights in Selma, AL?

Five. Five decades. That may seem like a long time, but it's not. Fifty years is not enough time to declare these areas totally free of the institutional racism that had denied marginalized groups basic human rights for centuries. People are alive today who remember being denied the right to vote—you better believe that racist views, practices and policies are still alive as well. The Voting Rights Act "was used to block more than 1,000 proposed changes to voting laws between 1982 and 2006," and last year, it "was invoked to stop a voter identification law in Texas and a Florida law that eliminated early voting days, which would have made it more difficult for hundreds of thousands of minority voters to cast ballots." This provision is not outdated. It is still extremely relevant to our current political culture, and it is necessary to protect the basic rights of countless American citizens.

I share President Obama's disappointment in this ruling, and I am inclined to agree with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's opinion that “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA." We will see what actions Congress takes from here, but I am not optimistic. This is a sad day for American Civil Rights, which have been an integral part of our legal structure for the last five decades and should remain so for many, many more.

Thursday, June 20

Why Catcalling is Not Okay

As an advisory board member for Take 5 for Your Dreams, I wrote a blog post this week for the What's Your Brave? blog series on sexual harassment and sexual violence. I chose to write about catcalling, a very public form of sexual harassment that some people dismiss as "not a big deal" or even think is a compliment to women. You can view the post on the What's Your Brave? site here or read it below.
                                                                                                                           

When I arrived in New York City at the beginning of June, I was nervous. Although New Orleans is a real-size city with all the crime, income inequality and political corruption that other big cities seem to have, it hasn’t prepared me for the bustling behemoth that is NYC. I am here in the city for the summer for my dream internship with an organization called 10×10, which works to promote girls’ education around the world. After living here for the past few weeks, I am starting to get more comfortable with the rhythm of the city.

Last night, I left my apartment in NYC around 9pm to make a quick run to the grocery down the street. From the moment I stepped outside, I was very conscious of the fact that I was out at night, alone, and, most importantly, a girl. I told myself that I was safe—the streets were well-lit, I thought, and surely women in New York go to the grocery store alone all the time. Nevertheless, I walked quickly, avoiding eye contact with anybody I passed. No one gave me any trouble.

I got to the store and wandered around for a bit, looking for popcorn and paper towels. As I walked past the meat counter, I heard a low whistle and someone behind me saying “Nice.” I turned and saw the man behind the counter looking at me, grinning in a way that immediately made me extremely uncomfortable. I frowned at him and walked away as quickly as I could. Although I was upset, uncomfortable and scared, I acted like nothing had happened. I quietly checked out and left the store, fuming all the way home.

This is not the first time I have been catcalled. “Catcalling” is the act of whistling, yelling at, or making unsolicited comments about someone, often in a public place. I was whistled at on a trip to Costa Rica when I was 15 by random men on the street at night. My first week of college, three boys yelled at my friend and I on a riverboat cruise, calling her “red” and me “yellow dress.” A young man in my university’s cafeteria yelled at me from ten feet away, saying “Hey girl, I see you. I see you playing with your hair.” In fact, I was even catcalled when I was in middle school. Not because I reached puberty early, or because I wore particularly exciting or revealing clothing at that age. Being catcalled has nothing to do with me beyond the fact that I possess a female body. All kinds of women—of every size, race, age and sexual orientation—in all kinds of places—cities big or small—get catcalled. Last night was not the first time it has happened to me, and it is undoubtedly not the last. And every time it happens, I react the same way: I pretend like I didn’t hear, or I look at the catcaller quickly and walk away. Although on the inside I am angry, scared and uncomfortable, I always try to act like it doesn’t affect me.

Why do I do that? Why didn’t I tell the guy at the meat counter to back off, or at least tell his manager about his inappropriate behavior? Why do women feel like they can’t respond to this kind of harassment?

I think the answer to these questions is multi-faceted. First, I have to say that some women do respond; they tell their harassers to leave them alone or to back off. These women are brave—that is a hard thing to do. And here’s why:

  • First and foremost, that kind of harassment is scary. For a woman, especially if she is alone, it is frightening when a strange man yells or whistles at her, and it is difficult to respond. When a man she doesn’t know is giving her that kind of unsolicited, unwelcome sexual attention, she will probably feel immediately unsafe around him and will not want to engage him further in any way.
  • Second, society has told women from the moment they arrived on this planet that above all, they should be polite and not cause a scene. This idea has been so culturally reinforced throughout our lives that we, as women and girls, sometimes even risk our own safety in favor of not being rude or drawing unwanted attention to ourselves. When a stranger yells at us from across the street, instead of yelling back that he should keep his comments to himself, we might just walk a little faster and keep our heads down. We have been taught our whole lives that the worst thing a girl can be is aggressive and rude, even to harassers.

Being catcalled does not make me feel pretty or desirable. When a man I don’t know whistles at me or comments on my appearance, it is not a compliment. Catcalling women and girls is a way to remind them that when they are out in public, they are public domain. That when a girl is on the street or in a store at night, her body is not her own. I am an 18-year-old girl living in New York City for the first time. I have dreams, thoughts, opinions, and feelings. When I am out—night or day, alone or not—I want, like anyone else, to be seen as a human being. But when a strange man catcalls me, he is reminding me that I am first and foremost a female body that he and any other man has the right to access.

These messages to girls that their bodies do not belong to them but are instead public property are internalized at a young age. In my eighth grade all-girls health class, my teacher was talking to us about catcalling. She asked us if she were to come to school in nothing but a sports bra and track pants, would she deserve to be whistled at by male students? My class of eighth grade girls almost unanimously responded yes, of course: if she wants to wear revealing clothing, then she just has to deal with that kind of behavior from men. My teacher then explained to us that no, no matter what a woman or girl wears, she does not deserve to be harassed—she is not asking for the input of strange men, and she should not have to be subjected to their catcalling. Looking back on this class, it shows me how early in our lives girls are taught that it is our responsibility to control men’s behavior and that we do not ultimately have a say in what happens to our bodies.

One of the reasons men continue to catcall and harass women they don’t know is because this behavior goes largely unpunished. As I explained before, it is difficult for women to push back against this kind of harassment, and onlookers certainly don’t often jump in to help. Therefore, I would like to end this post with an open letter to men everywhere.

Dear Men Who Catcall Women:

Just don’t. She doesn’t want your input. She doesn’t want to know that you think she’s got a nice body. Her self esteem does not depend on the opinion of a (creepy) stranger, and her body is not yours to comment on, whistle at or harass. She is a human being, and her mere existence does not mean she owes you anything. To Men Who Catcall Women, from women everywhere, I say: Back off.

Dear Men Who Don’t Catcall Women:

I know that some of you do not immediately understand why catcalling is a problem, as it is probably something that has never happened to you. However, if a woman complains about being catcalled, do not challenge her. Don’t argue with her. Don’t tell her that it wasn’t a big deal, or that it was just a compliment. Women have heard it all before, and the truth is, it’s not your place to decide if it was a big deal or not. To Men Who Don’t Catcall Women, when a woman tells you that it is harmful: believe her. If you dismiss or belittle her experience—even if you have never catcalled a woman in your life—you are part of the problem.

To men and women everywhere who stand up for women’s bodily integrity and autonomy, I say: Thank you. Keep doing what you’re doing.

All the best,

Gabriella