An Empowered Woman is a Sight to Behold

For Day 2 of the Feminisms Fest, Why Feminism Matters, the link-up is over at Danielle Vermeer’s blog, fromtwotoone.com. We’re considering these questions: What is at stake in this discussion? Why is feminism important to you? Are you thinking about your children or your sisters or the people that have come before you? Or, why do you not like the term? What are you concerned we’re not focusing on or we’re losing sight of when we talk about feminism? Why do you feel passionately about this topic?

When you’re done reading this post, head on over to Danielle’s to read the other entries and link up your own.

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Trigger warning: physical abuse

A few years ago, we found out one of our good friends was being regularly abused by her husband. I talked to a mutual friend about what we should do. They were part of the Burmese community I work with at Hill Tribers. The woman we were talking about was one of our best and brightest artisans.

Despite the fact that she was pregnant, the other women could hear her husband at night through the paper-thin apartment walls, yelling insults and curses. There were crashes and cries. She had deep bruises.

So I talked to one of the other men, a leader in the community, and asked him to help me proceed in calling the police, getting her into a shelter or intervening on behalf of this woman with her husband. It was one of many times we’ve had to work together with the community to handle abuse like this.

Though he’s very forward-thinking in many ways, my friend resisted my constant conversations about this woman and finally I asked him why: Why was her being abused not a big deal to him when it was a huge deal to me?

His answer shocked me.

He said in his village growing up, when a girl was born, her family was disappointed. She cost her family money, didn’t earn anything, didn’t bring anything to them. Girls were often viewed as trash. He said people often sold girls or got rid of them, that for a husband to abuse his wife was seen as his right. My friend was learning new ways of viewing women, new ways of treating his own wife and daughters, and he didn’t feel that way. But when it came to confronting his friends within the community, it was really difficult.

He told me, it is hard to change the thinking of generations.

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Over the years at Hill Tribers, we have had some really talented women we work with. They come to Austin after escaping the junta in Burma; the women bring looms and yarn. They weave and tat and sew.

Almost all of them present their skill with a shrug, like it’s no big deal, like it’s not worth very much. They light up when we are ecstatic about their beautiful artistry. One of the men was shocked at how much we would pay his wife for her weaving; we thought it was significantly less than she deserved.

We have become good friends with these women. We talk and laugh together. We spend time in their homes. It’s good to see them becoming more comfortable with us. In the beginning, they laughed uncomfortably when we asked their opinions about something. Now, the women who have worked with us a long time slap our hands away from stuff, poke us in fun, shoot straight about their work and their designs and their ideas.

They also have more respect from their husbands and community.

A woman who is empowered is a sight to behold.

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I won’t go into details here, but we had a conversation recently that proved that we really can’t speak for these women. In this case, I thought the women were reacting a certain way to a situation and I was terribly wrong. I’m so grateful for the translator that corrected us and helped us listen better to our friends.

I’ve heard the phrase a few times in church settings: let’s give a voice to the voiceless. There’s even a song we sing that has that line. It’s my least favorite line of all.

Many, though certainly not all, of my refugee friends have been told by their culture, by their husbands, by their families, and by themselves that they are worthless, that their skills are worthless, that their voice is worthless. And yet.

And yet.

They have voices. They have a lot to say. They have opinions and values and desires and dreams. And I can’t begin to fathom what those are.

I have no more right to speak for them than anyone has a right to speak for me.

This is why feminism matters, why third-wave feminism really matters. As an educated, over-helping, do-gooding, social-justice-loving white woman it is tempting for me to walk into their lives and assume I know what’s going on and tell everyone what I think I see.

Don’t get me wrong, advocacy is important. But it is has to be humble, ever-changing, ever-listening advocacy. Advocacy on their behalf only works as triage in a crisis; the long term solution is for me to sit down, shut up and listen as they speak for themselves, whether it’s to me, my friends and my audience or not.

I’m learning, over and over, to listen in humility and respect to my friends. They speak four and five languages and are now adding English. As I hear the ideas coming out of their mouths in ever-more complex sentences in this new language, I am blown away once again by the beauty of their voices.

Feminism matters because the struggle to tell women they are valuable, they are worthy, they are strong and smart and capable is far from over. If you think it is, let me gently suggest you spend time outside of our U.S. first-world suburban bubble.

The goal is not to advocate or to push or to teach, but to listen. That, to me, is the heart of feminism.

In my day-to-day life, feminism is a listening stance in relation to women I might not otherwise hear and a constant desire to learn from them.

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Tomorrow, for Feminisms Fest Day 3: What You Learned, link up at Preston Yancey’s blog, seeprestonblog.com, and write about these questions: What surprised you this week? What did you take away from the discussion? What blog posts did you find particularly helpful? What questions do you still have?

9 comments on “An Empowered Woman is a Sight to Behold

  1. cara meredith on said:

    “A woman empowered is a sight to behold.” YES. Thank you. :)

  2. I told a somewhat similar story today. Voices. And listening. Straining to hear and hear correctly. Thanks for giving us a virtual visit to Hill Tribers.

  3. Tanya Marlow on said:

    I really like the global perspective you bring here.

    It has also got me thinking about power and how society changes. I read ‘The Help’ and hated it, because it was all, like ‘I’m a privileged white woman who is going to take these black woman’s stories and use them for my profit.’ We had a heated discussion at book club about it! My friends were saying, ‘but what else could she do? She had the power, so she had to use it right’.

    I always get twitchy when people cast themselves as the saviour of others.

    But the question my friends raised is perhaps right. I think it will have to be the men who will need to change in order to bring about change in society – because they have the power. This doesn’t negate the power of story, and the right of women to be heard, but it does make me think we need the men on board more than we need the women.

    I’d love to know what you thought of this!

  4. jgoudeau on said:

    I taught The Help to my undergraduate class and I love it for that level because it gives them a great chance to talk about who can speak for a group. That’s one of my big soap boxes–have you seen my Questions of Travel series, mostly of fantastic guest posts? The page is at the top of my blog. I’m fascinated and compelled to talk about issues of representation from a postcolonial and feminist approach in our Christian culture; it’s amazing to me how far we still need to come. As for the book The Help, I honestly thought it was a mixed bag–it’s a great read, but it’s clunky about lots of important issues (again, why it’s great for undergrad discussions). Mostly I like that it’s a great jumping-off point for some real issues that need to be addressed. And I completely agree that the people in power need to take this up first–in churches where men have the power, this SHOULD be a men’s issue as much or more than a women’s issue, but too often churches wait until the women become the proverbial squeaky wheel before they deal with it. But that’s another topic for another time!

  5. Pingback: Feminisms Fest (3) Our Exploding Feminine Mystique | harrietlong

  6. Pingback: what i’ve learned, about voice. | stuff antonia says.

  7. As someone who grew up on the Burma border- thank you for being a part of the next life beginning. It’s a terrifying thing to become a new person in an new language.
    I love what you have to say about the distinction between being an advocate for the voiceless and being their voice. Perhaps that distinction is more clear in my mind but I think the line lies in where the power sits. By all means be the translator, be the note-taker because they have so much to dictate. Thank you for celebrating personhood and taking to time to learn the way stories grow.

    • jgoudeau on said:

      Hannah, I would love to know more about your growing up on the Burmese border. In Thailand? I’m intrigued! And thank you for your kind words–this is an ever-changing process and I still have so much to learn.

  8. Jenn LeBow on said:

    Interesting take on the “voice” line of thinking. I like what you are saying here, that through time and relationship, these women’s voices started to be heard when they were ready to speak. Certainly no one would have heard their voices if y’all, even with the best of intentions, had continued to speak for them instead of letting them speak for themselves. However, before y’all befriended these women, no one had told them that their voices were worth hearing. Between that and the uncertainty of being in a new culture with an unfamiliar language, they weren’t speaking. Seeing them empowered to speak their minds is a joyful sight, clearly, and for all of us, in a new culture or not, I think that the confidence to speak comes from having found support and a safe place to do so.

    I think many times what we (and I say we because my last post on feminism started with the title “Giving a Voice to Every Person”) mean by “giving a voice” is actually “helping others hear the voice we’ve started to hear.” Maybe I need to articulate that better, but I don’t think ill of the impulse to use whatever platform we have to amplify the voices of those who don’t regularly have a place in the public debate. No, we cannot speak for them, and shouldn’t expect to represent anyone else’s views the way they can themselves, but at the same time, part of our compassion for others is a desire to see them represented as they deserve to be. Speaking out to raise the profile of those who need to be heard is good. I admire it in y’all at HCHT, and if I describe you as giving a voice to Burmese artisan immigrants, what I mean is that you’ve handed them a megaphone, knowing that otherwise their voices would remain a whisper.

    Thanks for continuing to sharpen my thinking on this!