Why are Young Women Activists So Brave?

gayle kimball
Posted February 18, 2018 from United States
Brave: Young Women's Global Revolution Vol. 1 cover

After dialoguing with young people around the world for 15 years for a series of books including Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution Volumes 1 and 2,[1] I discovered many young women who led uprisings (listed on the global youth webpage[2]) that started with the Arab Spring in 2011 and spread in a wave around the world. The courage of young Muslim women is the most striking. They’re threatened with death, stoning, hellfire or not being marriageable if they don't obey authority. Malala Yousafzai takes on opponents of education for girls despite being shot in the head and feels free to correct world leaders like President Obama on his drone policy. She’s famous but other Pakistani young women also risk extremists’ punishment for educating girls. Saudi women drive cars (finally legal this year thanks to a young powerful prince) or video themselves wearing a skirt knowing their jobs could be taken away from them and they might put in jail. Egyptian women face police snipers while Libyan and Afghan women activists face death from extremists who want women to stay at home. Tawakkol Karman ignored her father and husband who were worried over death threats on her life to order to continue to lead Yemen’s uprising. Most recently, high school students are refusing to accept adult excuses about not enacting gun control after 17 students and teachers were killed in a mass shooting by a former student in Parkland, Florida.

Why are they so brave? As the best-educated generation in history they learned to think for themselves and know how to access information. The widespread use of cellphones with cameras, even in regions without electricity, expands access to information and makes it difficult to hide abuses. This generation is better informed about global problems and those who are responsible for them. Motivated by a sense of justice and human rights, young activists draw strength and information from international support groups on social media. Many have Internet “friends” from around the world and are empowered by seeing YouTube videos of women in the front line of demonstrations, facing off masked police with tear gas and water cannons.

Young people with access to electricity grew up identifying with heroes in Western movies like the Lion King and books like those about Harry Potter and Hermione Granger who smartly challenge the powerful bad guys. Do you agree that most Western cartoons include nonconformists or at least problem solvers like Dora the Explorer? We’re also seeing feminist cartoons in Pakistan about a Jiya, the “Burka Avenger” superhero teacher and India’s tiger-riding star of graphic novels, Priya, who protects girls from the stigma of rape.

On one hand, girl power is romanticized and proclaimed in advertising and in development programs. Australian author Anita Harris believes that girls are used by Western commercial interests to symbolize the self-made “can-do” girl of the future, mixing feminism and the concept of “grrrl power” with neoliberal capitalist individualism. Girls are portrayed as the “poster girls for success in neoliberal times” and “the ideal citizens of the future.”[3] Nike’s Girl Effect campaign suggested that the key to lifting developing nations out of poverty is the adolescent girl, when in fact, girls obviously don’t have this power. The key is to change the neoliberal capitalist economic system that causes widening inequality in a world where only 85 (mostly) men have as much wealth as the bottom half of the population![4] The World Economic Forum predicts it will take up to 170 years to achieve economic equality between women and men, partly due to the lack of aid funding that specifically targets women.[5] What I think is more important than clothing, is the 225 million women who want birth control but don’t have it—not just in developing nations. President Trump hired an anti-birth control advisor and his presidency encourages Republicans who want to defund Planned Parenthood and health care.[6]

On the other hand, women’s power is feared. Strong women like Hillary Clinton or Joice Mujuru (former Vice-President of Zimbabwe) are called unattractive bitches or witches. The fear of the “feminization” of power is a reaction to girls’ success in education as the majority of global college graduates, and to their skill in cooperative team relationships required in the contemporary workplace and in progressive groups. Countries like China give boys preference in college admission as girls score higher on the entrance exam and China joins Iran in prohibiting certain college majors to women. As young women graduates become the majority of professionals, will they get past the glass ceiling to make a difference? Are they the harbingers of a future characterized by more democratic and relational organizing? The global uprisings that started with the Arab Spring in 2011 all advocate horizontalism, direct democracy and consensus decision-making--enunciated earlier by the Second Wave of feminism, as the prefigurative social system of the future.

The success of brave privileged educated young women who helped lead uprisings is in sharp contrast to fearful illiterate poor girls who live in rural areas of developing countries or in urban slums, available online.[7] You’ll read that she has no autonomy and had to turn down a free opportunity to be educated in our Open Door Literacy Project. Since over 80% of the world’s young people live in developing countries, poverty and illiteracy must be tackled with at least as much funding as the West spends on pets. With the largest populations, India and China are the countries to watch to see if they overcome patriarchal control of society and government. Can they provide equal opportunity for women and lift more people out of poverty, especially in India?

Smart, brave girls are portrayed as saviors like Casey and Athena in the 2015 film Tomorrowland. This is not a new theme: I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about the Victorian belief in the ability of pure Christian women to bring salvation to less refined men, as portrayed in novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The meme of grrrl power was coined by punk artists like the band Bikini Kill and their zines in the early 1990s, inspired by the black power movement. The danger is that advertisers and development experts interpret girl power as the ability of individual enterprising young women to make money and consume products in developed countries or to make development efforts successful in low-income countries. Mattel’s “I can be” Barbie is an example of the sales pitch that girls can be anything they like; however one of their advertisements mostly shows Barbie caring for children as a mother or medical professional.[8]

Another danger of pretend girl power is young women are expected to do it all, to be perfect, as seen in advertisements featuring a beautiful woman in a suit and heels, happily striding down the sidewalk carrying a briefcase and a baby. This pressure to be attractive and achieve is part of the explanation for rising anxiety and depression levels in girls in the US. This pressure may also make girls more vulnerable to criticism on social media and from peers. Girls were three-fourths of the depressed teens in a 2016 Johns Hopkins University study of interviews with more than 172,000 teens.[9] The previous year the National Institute of Mental Health reported that about 30% of girls and 20% of boys have an anxiety disorder.[10]

The definition of female power as individual preference and style undercuts the First and Second Wave feminist understanding that change comes from persistent group efforts to pass new legislation like the vote or equity in federal spending on education. It took the First Wave never giving up and trying many tactics from 1848 to 1920 to pass the 19th amendment to the US Constitution. Abortion was illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 but access is steadily being rolled back in southern states. The Equal Rights Amendment proposed in 1923 still hasn’t passed. The attention on slut shaming, SlutWalks, fat shaming, gender pronouns, and the cultural appropriation of hairstyles focuses on appearance and how others perceive you. This focus forgets the Second Wave understanding that the personal is political (such as emphasis on vaginal orgasms or who does family work) and misses the big social problems of women’s lack of power in government, business and in some families like the woman whose husband wouldn’t permit her to join our local Women’s March.

The Second Wave of feminism did the groundwork by naming the sexist problem that until then had no name (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, 1963), organizing for political change on the street, in the boardrooms, and in legislatures. Role models of outspoken charismatic feminists like Gloria Steinem (born in 1934) were known globally for making the point that we need to do “outrageous acts and everyday rebellions” (Steinem’s 1983 book title) and that the family is the starting point for patriarchal inequality. The UN and other NGOs organized internationally for recognition that women’s rights are human rights. Although the UN’s Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 spurred feminist organizing globally, no country has gender equality. The “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Turns 20” provides a blueprint for global progress towards gender equality.[11]

Actors Emma Watson (born in 1990) and Lena Dunham (born in 1986) are inspired by Steinem to bring feminism to their generation, as in Watson’s work with the UN’s HeForShe and her bookclub and Dunham’s feminist publishing imprint called Lenny. We can learn from the best-organized student groups with active young women co-leaders in Chile and Quebec. Some of them decided to run for political office in both places. Will they be able to change the system from the inside? Some studies show that women leaders do more for their constituents, work more harmoniously in a group, and that they’re less likely to enter warfare. We’ll see. A recent hopeful tendency is for women’s rights groups to network with other activist groups, such as environmentalists, immigrant rights groups and LGBT rights, as evidenced in recent global Women’s Marches. I invite your comments and observations.

Gayle Kimball, Ph.D. is the author of 16 books and the first Coordinator of Women’s Studies at California State University, Chico.

[1] https://wp.me/p47Q76-DF

[2] https://wp.me/p47Q76-24

[3] Harris, p. 184.

[4] “Just 8 Men Own Same Wealth as Half the World,” Oxfam, January 16, 2017.

https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-o...

[5] http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/

[6] http://www.salon.com/2017/01/07/a-new-war-on-birth-control-trumps-victor...

[7] https://wp.me/p47Q76-1B

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xf-kRKdjL6Q

[9] “Depression on the Rise Among Teens, Especially Girls,” HUB Staff Report, November 16, 2016.

https://hub.jhu.edu/2016/11/16/adolescent-depression-study/

[10] Susanna Schrobsdorff, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” TIME Magazine, October 27, 2016.

http://time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/

[11] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/1776The%20Beijin...

Comments 4

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Jill Langhus
Feb 19, 2018
Feb 19, 2018

Hi Gayle. Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking story. You raise many interesting, albeit disturbing trends and facts in your story. I agree that the Muslim women and girls seem to be the bravest as they have the hardest mountains to climb, such as Sister Zeph, but without them we would be lost. So much ground needs to be covered and more and more brave women and girls need to stand up to all the injustices they face and endure. It just seems that parents really need to think hard about what beliefs and behaviors they are instilling in all their children. I really think if there was more conscious upbringing going on, there would be at least half the violence that exists, not to mention more all around love and compassion. I always think that at the core, most people know right from wrong, they just choose to look the other way. What do you think?

gayle kimball
Feb 19, 2018
Feb 19, 2018

Thanks for reading and commenting. I think some people are so brainwashed or wounded they aren't reasonable or kind, like the school shooters or cruel ISIS terrorists.

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Feb 22, 2018
Feb 22, 2018

Hi Gayle

Thanks for a wonderful article on women activists. It's true that Muslim women have become more activists and that's because they have gone through slot more than the rest of the women in the world and they have found strength in the strong sisterhood that they have created over the years.  We need to learn from them and strengthen our bond as sisters all over the world so our voice is one and very strong that it can cause a global earth quake. It's our time to rise and not look on. It's our time to cause change in the world. 

Thank you and looking forward to more of your lovely articles.  Stay blessed my sister and we continue with the struggle. 

gayle kimball
Feb 23, 2018
Feb 23, 2018

I'd like to hear about what you and your activist friends are doing locally. Thanks, Gayle