Recent Resources for Feminists
Saturday March 17 2018
“Marielle Franco Presente”: Global Protest Movements Denounce the Assassination of Brazilian Activist
Just a few days before her assassination, Franco condemning the military killing of Matheus Melo, asked: How many more need to die for this war to end?
People across the world have responded with outrage, sadness, and grief to the assassination of Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes on Wednesday night in Rio de Janeiro. Marielle Franco was a councilwoman from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) in the city of Rio de Janeiro, and an activist who opposed the militarization of poor neighborhoods.
Marielle - a black woman, a lesbian, and an activist - was from Maré favela. She was an ardent defender of the rights of women, black people, LGBTQI people, working class and poor people. Her identity and her political actions threatened the project of the Brazilian government and oligarchy.
News of Marielle’s assassination reverberated across the world, and protests were held in many different cities against the political assassination. The demonstrators demanded justice for her and Anderson, and called for ending the militarization of the city of Rio de Janeiro - one of the cities in the world with the highest rates of violence.
Reports released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have characterized the Brazilian military and civil police forces as the world’s most violent. They were accused of torturing and killing citizens – especially young black men – during arrests.
In February, during the yearly celebration of Carnival, there was drastic rise in crime in the city and three Military Police agents were killed. In response to this and to the growing security problem, Michel Temer, the acting president since the 2016 coup, authorized military intervention in the city, mostly targeting the poor neighborhoods.
The Military Police have been involved in many different cases of human rights violations, execution of young people, mostly black and from the poor neighborhoods (or favelas). The deployment of military force - which are trained to combat ‘foreign enemies’ rather than to ‘protect public’ - have unleashed a violent repression in these areas.
When Temer declared the measure, Franco was one of the first to speak out against it, saying that it would bring “a false sense of security to the upper class” who think that “things will get better with the soldiers.” She stated that there will be more young black boys assassinated, and that the abuses by the Armed Forces will be judged by Military Justice, whose tribunals will be made up of other military members.
Denouncing the murder of a young person, Matheus Melo, Marielle said, only a few days before her assassination: “Another homicide of a young person at the hands of the Military Police. Matheus Melo was leaving the church. How many more need to die for this war to end?”
She had also denounced the police for the killing of two boys during a police raid in the Acari neighborhood. "What is happening now in Acari is absurd! And has always happened! The Battalion 41 of the Military Police is known as the Battalion of Death. Stop attacking the population! Stop killing our youth!”
Her death is the expression of the extreme racist, sexist, homophobic and violent ideology that currently has gained currency not just in Brazil, but all across the world.
Below are pictures and videos of vigils and protests from across the world.
“The death of Marielle was not in vain. We are going to start a revolution,” was the clarion call across Brazil, where thousands of people took to streets on Thursday and Friday to protest the brutal murder of Marielle and Anderson, and to reject the military occupation of Rio de Janeiro. Marielle’s home city of Rio de Janeiro had crowds of over 50 thousand. There were also protests in São Paulo, Sorocaba, Porto Alegre, Brasília, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Natal, Fortaleza, Belém, Manaus, Curitiba, Florianópolis, Juiz de Fora, Londrina, and Campos dos Goytacazes.
In Argentina, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo denounced Marielle’s assassination in the weekly procession the organization has been holding since 1984 around the plaza in front of the Presidential palace, where they read out the names of the people disappeared and assassinated during the period of dictatorship in Argentina. Later there was a mobilization in downtown Buenos Aires.
Video: In Dublin people gathered to remember Marielle and demand justice.
Dozens of people in Montreal took to the streets to show their outrage over Marielle’s murder, and demanded an independent investigation into the killing to ensure there is real justice.
People gathered in the imperialist heartland in New York City and Washington D.C. to demand justice for Marielle.
Thursday March 8 2018
As Indian Women We Mustn’t Stay ‘Chup’ About Our Open Secret: Internalised Sexism #BookReview
Deepa Narayan’s extraordinary book Chup should be the springboard for Indian women to introspect and break the silence around gender inequality.
I began reading Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, prepared to argue against it. The very premise of the book –that even educated, modern women in India are subscribers to the sexist biases of earlier generations, was unbelievable.
However, the author, Deepa Narayan, observes that as she spoke to urban Indian women in many different settings, in India and abroad, a disturbing pattern emerged. To put it in her own words, “yet another smartly dressed woman, an artist, a business manager, a financial analyst, a professor, a dentist, an engineer, a lawyer, a researcher, a scientist, a teacher, an educated stay-at-home mom, was so unsure of herself. Or that she sounded, after the obligatory gender equality claims and sometimes passionate lecture, like her mother would have sounded thirty or forty years ago.”
Following this, the author made modifications to her research methodology and ended up with 8000 pages of notes from interviews with highly educated women in the cities, and discovered that there was still a huge gap between intellectual beliefs and actual behavior.
From this the author builds her central argumentsthat gender equality is not born from the intellect, but from ingrained culture; that this culture, which currently favours inequality, and explains both sexual violence and everyday sexism, can be changed; and that this change is not possible without the active participation of men, and so the focus should not be on blaming “patriarchy” but on finding ways to educate men and to include them in finding solutions.
Our culture, according to the author, trains women to not exist either by literally killing them (foeticides, female infanticides, violence) or by training them to “disappear” via seven habits, making us “feminists with bad habits.”
The seven habits are: Deny your body, Be Quiet, Please Others, Deny Sexuality, Isolate yourself, Have no individual identity and Be Dependent.
Published by Juggernaut, the book has a total of eight chapters. Excluding the introductory and concluding chapters, each of the other chapters deals with these bad habits. In each chapter, the author discusses, using actual quotes, examples, and anecdotes from the lives of the women she interviewed, how the habit is developed, its consequences and finally offers reflections and suggestions for how these habits can be broken.
In the concluding chapter, the author offers her suggestions for how this culture can be transformed. These are not a list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ but are general guidelines for action. I especially appreciate the author’s metaphor of gender bias as “dirt” which must be cleaned every day. She makes interesting observations in this chapter about co-opting men as integral to the fight against the cultural systems, about facilitating collective action and ensuring solidarity, and the importance of redefining “power,” before concluding on a hopeful note by asserting that change is possible.
It was a difficult book to read as it challenged so many things I had taken for granted. But now, having read it completely, I feel a sense of relief –a much needed deep breath. This book solidifies and lays out specific changes for cultural modification in a structured manner.
While it is research based, the writing is not buried under layers of jargon and the prose is simple, straightforward and honest. The observations and arguments are interspersed with quotes and stories of real women, making sure that the reading experience isn’t dry and boring. It makes it relatable.
With a length of 300 plus pages including acknowledgements and detailed references, the book is a power packed capsule that contains a surprising amount of condensed wisdom!
This is a book that must be read by both men and women and especially the younger generation. I would sincerely urge parents to discuss and debate this book on the dinner table with their teenage children. While I still do not agree with everything the book has to say (for example, the author’s assertion that intersectionality is an obstacle to collective action) I do agree that it is impactful and starts conversations that we must have.
As I said in the beginning of this review, I found the premise of this book outrageous. “I am not sexist,” I thought. In one chapter, the author mentions that she took the Implicit Gender Bias test available online, and was shocked to realize that she was indeed biased. I decided to take the test myself, and the results revealed that like 19% of other online test takers, I too have a “slight automatic association for Male with Career and Female with Family.” I can only heave a sigh of relief that it is not a strong association. The effect of cultural conditioning on my subconscious is undeniable.
I also felt that the statement, “women are trained not to exist,” is a little extreme. However as the author unpacks that statement and lays out her arguments, the little and big cultural biases that are so much a part of daily life that we take them for granted, become recognizable. Many events over the past month, such as a minister’s comment about girls drinking, or a jibe at a lady minister for laughing, and some unwanted advice about saris, etc. are proof that society attempts to control women at each and every step.
The latest proof came just as I was finishing reading the book. Aayushi Jagad, a female comic, had pointed out bias in the work of the prominent comic group AIB. All Aayushi asked for was for the existence of women to be acknowledged. Where AIB accepted the criticism gracefully, some random men took offence and attacked Aayushi. This to me was a perfect example of society telling women to not exist.
I understood without a doubt then what the author is trying to say. Women are taught not to existby stifling their voice and identity. It is a metaphorical non-existence that limits them to roles and responsibilities (daughter, sister. mother, wife) and murders their individuality.
Ultimately, Chup is a voice that battles this push towards non-existence. It has stood up and shouted out“I’m here! I exist! I deserve to be here!” Now, it is up to us to acknowledge the message and take it forward. Reading the book is a good start.
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Thursday March 08 2018.
End the silence
End the silence, laugh raucously Deepa Narayan tells women in India in a powerful new book By Rituparna Chatterjee
Deepa Narayan’s book, Chup: Breaking the Silence About Being India’s Women, is filled with stories of rebellion, resistance and resilience. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
“The difference between smiling and laughing is fascinating,” says social scientist Deepa Narayan, author of a new book, Chup: Breaking The Silence About Being India’s Women. “Smiling is good, girls are trained to smile, because that’s pleasing to others. But when you laugh, you have a self, if you have a self, you exist, and if you exist you have power.” Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury, who was recently mocked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for laughing uproariously, would agree with the thesis Narayan puts forth in a powerful chapter on the unbridled, raucous laughter of women that shatters the silence surrounding their right to be heard.
Chup is filled with stories of rebellion, resistance and resilience. Consider Meera, for instance, who ran away from home at 17 to escape the casual tyranny of a benevolent man who controlled the finances and fates of the women in the house. It’s a story that plays out with predictable monotony in the emotionally vulnerable spaces women occupy in Indian households, often silently, brokering deals with their most intimate abusers every day, just to remain alive.
“I remember that deep sense of choking,” she tells Narayan. “In my family, as a child, I learnt to observe too much, silent, listening. My mother is a good listener; not my father, he is very dogmatic, always strong opinions. My father is a liberal in his thoughts, ‘you are free to choose anything, it is your life’ but ‘being a doctor is desirable.’”
Meera eventually took a train to Chennai, with no money or means to sustain herself, and found shelter with a group of sex workers. She looked after their children while they were away at work in exchange for money to study the subject she loved (psychology) instead of the one she had been forced to take for her father’s approval (medicine). It was the safest she had felt since leaving her middle-class home in New Delhi’s Saketliving under a bridge in a colony of sex workers.
Interviewing 400 women, Narayan documents in a style that is almost clinical, many accounts of abuse, patriarchy, coercion, even complicitysome of which turn into tales of breaking free.
For many women in India, the gang rape and murder of a physiotherapist in 2012 was the catalyst for a major churn. The moment spilled over into their most intimate spaces and conversations, forcing, perhaps for the first time, society to break the conspiracy of silence around sexual abuse. But it was not until the recent outpouring of rage on social media, under #MeToo, that the universal resonance of gender violence became truly comprehensible. “There was a lot of public discussion on law, order and ‘culture’ (after the 2012 incident),” Narayan says. “(I wanted to understand) what is it about culture that could explain violence against women.”
She came up with two questions that defined her project for the next three years: “What does it mean to be a woman today?” and “What does it mean to be a man today?” In spite of their deceptive simplicity, the questions brought out the rawest emotions in most people, even among the most diffident.
Narayan was a victim of sexual violation when she was 7, but didn’t speak about it to anyone. This silence is the thread that binds the women in her book and gives it its title. In Chup, even the most vocal, strong-willed and independent-minded women admit to losing their voices in situations that thrive on systematic exploitation.
“Chup is used so frequently that the Oxford English Dictionary has now accepted it as an English word,” Narayan says. It is a word familiar to women in the subcontinent from their early years; they are usually told: Don’t talk too much. Don’t laugh too loudly. Don’t explore your bodies. Don’t make allies. “Chup is an entry point to ‘shutting down’. It’s not just about the voice, chup is about negating your entire existence,” Narayan argues.
Woman after woman in the book recalls related experiences: from being violated on public transport to being solicited for sex in exchange for a legitimate job opportunity. Some of these accounts are particularly heartbreaking.
Take for instance, the story of a girl who was raped at the age of 13 on her way back after she had invited friends to her birthday party. “Nobody cared about me. Everyone, my parents, the neighbours and the police, only wanted me to answer questions about my virginity,” she tells Narayan. “Nobody came to my birthday the next day…. The police ate my cake and I hated that…instead of telling my parents to take action, they discouraged them. ‘Don’t do it,’ they said. ‘Aapki beti hai, naam kharab hoga, jaane do (It’s your daughter, her name will be spoilt, let him go)’. I guess, somewhere, my parents also thought like that. Since then I’ve stopped celebrating birthdays,” she adds.
“The fact that women put each other down is also part of the strategy to keep them divided. When women get united, there will be change,” Narayan says. “The moment a woman stands up alone, she is challenging the system. In India, the battle has to become collective. Only numbers have the power to change the system.”
Can men, even feminist men, be real allies in the fight for equality, given that they, by default, come from a pre-determined position of privilege?
“I don’t think we’re going to see massive change without men as allies. Unless you can work with people who hold the power, you would be fighting forever,” Narayan adds, quickly clarifying that this does not mean women should negotiate with their oppressors. “If we say that the cultural system has to change, both men and women have to change. It has to be as much a revolution for men as for women. I’m not excusing men’s behaviour, but keeping aside the criminal issues, in everyday sexism, men often don’t know they are being sexist. They have to be educated.”
Melbourne ~ Thursday March 8 2018
Have feminists gone too far? We're just getting startedBy Clementine Ford
The cartoonist Judy Horacek has a wonderful comic strip in which a group of women are shown walking down the street while a man leans against the wall looking at them.
"You feminists have gone too far," he says.
The women stop and stare at him.
: Good Ship Matriarchy (John Shakespeare)
"Yes, the party's back that way," he clarifies. The comic ends with the group (which now includes the man) walking back towards the direction they've just come from.
It's a gentle joke that still manages to say so much, and I think of it whenever that asinine-and-yet-inevitable argument is put forward. Feminism has gone too far. The #MeToo movement has gone too far. Women have gone too far. It's a witch hunt.
The idea that a liberation movement for women has gone "too far" is a common one, an admonishment designed to make us feel like naughty schoolgirls. Patriarchy is maintained in part by keeping women in our place and punishing us when we dare to step outside of it. But the truth is that feminism hasn't gone nearly far enough, as evidenced by the huge number of women around the world who still suffer disproportionately at the hands of men and the patriarchy that upholds them.
Australia's United Nations Women National Committee has declared the theme of International Women's Day 2018 to be "Leave No Woman Behind", and will be staging events that explicitly look at "the vital role that women play in humanitarian and disaster planning and response …[highlighting] the important roles that women play in risk reduction, rebuilding, rehabilitation and peace processes".
Girls are not encouraged to swim or climb so when the tsunami hit in 2004, girls and women in Aceh suffered disproportionately. (Angela Wylie)
Reading the UN Women Australia website, I was surprised to learn that women and children are 14 times more likely to die following humanitarian disasters. The tsunami that devastated regions in the Indian Ocean in 2004 killed four times as many women as it did men. As Philippa Ross wrote in The Guardian in 2014, "This discrepancy can largely be explained by cultural restrictions on women's behaviour."
"In Aceh, women and girls are often not encouraged to learn to swim or climb trees. At the time the tsunami hit, women were also in particularly vulnerable places, clustered near the shoreline at home, mostly caring for children."
Video: Australian Women who have changed the world. They are scientists, athletes, writers and activists. So many women have sparked positive change.
It isn't just disproportionate death rates that women and children need fear from natural disasters. As the journalist Jill Stark noted in 2015, "In the aftermath of a disaster, rape, child and women trafficking, maternal mortality rates and domestic violence all increase." Following the 2004 tsunami in particular, aid workers expressed concern for the wellbeing of young girls in an environment where so many women of marriageable age had perished. Survival means different things to different groups of people.
Do not be tempted to succumb to xenophobia in judging these cultural factors. Women and children in Australia are equally as prone to violence following natural disasters as they are anywhere else. For all of Australia's supposed "equality", groundbreaking research conducted by Women's Health Goulburn North East documented an increase in intimate partner and family violence following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. In New Zealand, police recorded a 53 per cent increase in domestic violence reports following the Canterbury earthquake in 2010. Research conducted in the US has had similar findings, with a "four-fold increase in intimate partner violence" recorded after Hurricane Katrina, not to mention a "98 per cent increase in the physical victimisation of women". So not only do we have to fear the wrath of Mother Nature, we have to contend with men (the dominant perpetrators of family violence) beating us in its aftermath.
The Marysville primary school in ruins after the 2009 bushfires. Women have more to fear than Mother Nature when natural disasters strike. (William West)
But this backlash isn't limited to the heightened adrenaline of life-or-death situations. A 2011 US study examining the rates of domestic violence reports on Sunday afternoons during football season (amounting to 900 NFL games over an 11 year period) discovered a 10 per cent increase in areas where the local team had suffered an unexpected loss. That increase doubled when the loss was to a traditional rival. A 2014 British study found that domestic violence reports increased by 25 per cent following England's games during the 2010 World Cup, regardless of whether the team recorded a win or a loss.
In February, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a landmark report examining the extent of family violence in Australia. It found that the six groups most at risk of experiencing some form of family violence or abuse are: Indigenous women, young women, pregnant women, women with disabilities, women experiencing financial hardship, and people who had witnessed abuse as children.
When people argue that feminism has gone "too far", they exhibit an ignorance not just about the history of feminism's aims but also for the reality of violence for billions of women around the world. The issues I've referenced here are just a tiny drop in an ocean of pain and suffering that is forced on women by virtue of our gender. As a society, we haven't even glimpsed the shoreline of that oppression yet, let alone steered the Good Ship Matriarchy out beyond the flags that supposedly signify equality.
Unless you are prepared to personally return for every last woman that the world's organisational structures, feminism included, has left behind, stop justifying your desire to maintain power by complaining feminism has "gone too far". We haven't even begun yet, I promise you that.
MARCH 16 2018
Asma Jahangir - Rebel with a cause
Asma Jahangir (1952-2018) spoke for the dispossessed and the deprived in Pakistan and fought a relentless battle for democracy and human rights in the country
Asma Jahangir delivering the second Walter Sisulu Memorial Lecture at Jamia Millia Islamia University, in New Delhi, in 2008. (S. Subramanium)
At the funeral of Asma Jahangir on February 13. (ARIF ALI/AFP)
By ZIYA US SALAM
A LITTLE over two weeks after Jamida created history by becoming the first woman to lead mixed Friday prayers in India, the spirit of change swept the patriarchal forces in neighbouring Pakistan off their feet. Scores of women assembled for the Namaaz-e-Janaaza (funeral prayer) of the lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir, who died at the age of 66 following a cardiac arrest. The media publicised the picture of women standing in a saff (row formed for prayer), defiance writ large on their faces, next to men behind the body. In a country that is used to seeing only men attending burials, the image epitomised many things that Asma Jahangir stood for.
The revolt against tradition did not end with the funeral prayer in Lahore. Asma Jahangir was buried not in a traditional cemetery but in her family farmhouse in a manner that is fitting for one who lived her life according to her own set of principles. Unencumbered by tradition and unaccustomed to kowtowing to patriarchal society, Asma Jahangir, in many ways, was her own person. Not for her the genteel culture of a society where women are appreciated for conformism and admired for their coyness but looked down upon for any sign of defiance or deviation from the norm. This ability to hold her own and thwart all ideas of a patriarchal society stood Asma Jahangir in good stead. So much so that she rose to be the first woman to serve as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in Pakistan and was a co-founder of the country’s Human Rights Commission.
One of her remarkable contributions was in co-founding the Women’s Action Forum in 1981, when it was unthinkable for women to even speak up for their rights. Not just clerics but politicians too were not comfortable with the idea of rights for women. The forum worked tirelessly for equal rights for women and did not shy away from tackling instances of sexism at the workplace, including in legal circles.
Hers was a spirit that rebelled against denial of justice to any human being. She did much for the dispossessed and the deprived in Pakistan and certainly tried her best to make the lives of the minorities a little better in a country often in the grip of conservative maulanas. For almost half of the cases she took up she charged no fees and kept this charity under wraps. Incidentally, it was the fearless lawyer in her that inspired the character Rani Mukerji played in Yash Chopra’s film Veer-Zaara, the story of the romance between an Indian and a Pakistani. It was only when a section of the media revealed this that Hindi moviegoers understood the nuances of Rani Mukerji’s character in the film.
A trailblazer that she was, Asma Jahangir had to pay a heavy price for her indomitable spirit. In 1983, she was jailed for participating in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy when General Zia-ul-Haq was ruling Pakistan with an iron fist. She had two things going against her: her gender and her relentless fight for democracy. Indeed, politicians across the spectrum initially tried to slot Asma Jahangir as one of their own. What went in her favour was her unwavering commitment to justice for all.
Five years after Asma Jahangir was jailed, Gen. Zia died. And she went from strength to strength, harnessing the good in liberal society. It did not mean that her freedom would never be in peril. But whenever dangers presented themselves, Asma Jahangir was up to the task. For instance, in 1993, Pakistan made international headlines with the case of an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles Rehmat and Manzoor, who were accused of indulging in blasphemous writing on the wall of a masjid near Lahore. When a lower court convicted them, Asma Jahangir represented the Masihs in the High Court and won an acquittal for them in 1995.
A few years later, she famously represented Altaf Hussain, the linchpin of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), who was accused of making anti-Pakistan remarks. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ordered a blackout on television coverage of him. But Asma Jahangir took up his case, earning the opprobrium of even her lawyer colleagues in the process.
Much admired or hated, depending on which side one belonged to, Asma Jahangir was often in the news for her feminist take on issues confronting the nation. She won a rare and deeply significant victory for women in Pakistan in the well-known Saima Waheed case in 2003. Saima Waheed’s marriage was challenged by her father who said he had not given her permission for it. Asma Jahangir’s legal victory in the case got Pakistani women the freedom to marry on their own accord, without the permission or presence of a “wali”, or male guardian.
Not known to rest on her laurels, in 2007 she got active in the Lawyers’ Movement, a popular mass movement initiated by the lawyers of Pakistan in protest against the then President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf’s suspension of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. She was put under house arrest. But her spirit could not be caged.
Asma Jahangir was among the few lawyers willing to take up the cases of young men who went missing, usually following an encounter with the police. It involved risk to her life as the young men were considered enemies of the state, and defending a perceived enemy was not the easiest of tasks. She did manage, though, to unite some of these missing men with their families.
Asma Jahangir also spoke up for people-to-people bonhomie between India and Pakistan and advocated peace between the two countries. It antagonised the powers that be, but she did win over liberals on both sides of the fence. But when she raised her voice for human rights concerns, both in Kashmir and in Balochistan, there were few people willing to be seen on her side. It did not matter to her. In her relentless drive for peace, she even met the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. Again, it was no mean achievement considering Thackeray and his party’s well-documented animosity towards Pakistan.
Indeed, in Asma Jahangir’s life there were no full stops. A day before she died she appeared on a television show. Reportedly, her cell phone fell from her hands while discussing a contempt case against a Minister over phone with a senior lawyer. She was never to pick it up again; she died with her lawyer’s cloak on.
Much before the final moment, she had earned followers, young men and women who dared to follow in her footsteps. The best proof of it was seen during her last rites. As women instinctively walked down to offer the last prayers, many were overcome with doubt whether conservative maulanas and entrenched forces of male hegemony would allow them to take part in the namaaz. To their astonishment, the local people offered no resistance to their wish to offer namaaz for Asma Jahangir. Many were shocked to see women standing in a row for the final prayers. Throughout her life, Asma Jahangir had taken on the notions of male superiority with gusto. All her efforts seemed to come to fruition when her funeral prayers were led by Farooq Mawdudi, son of Maulana Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, an outfit well known for its conservative streak. For a woman who had been abused, threatened, jailed, even called anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan, it was no minor triumph. Indeed, like a vintage lawyer, she reserved her best for the end.
Time Magazine ~ March 09 2018
Being a Woman Was Crucial to My Success in a Male-Dominated Field
By Jane Goodall
When I was a little girl, I used to dream as a man, because I wanted to do things that women didn’t do back then such as traveling to Africa, living with wild animals and writing books. I didn’t have any female explorers or scientists to look up to but I was inspired by Dr. Dolittle, Tarzan and Mowgli in The Jungle Book all male characters. It was only my mother who supported my dream: “You’ll have to work hard, take advantage of opportunities and never give up,” she’d tell me. I’ve shared that message with young people around the world, and so many have thanked me, and said, “You taught me that because you did it, I can do it too.” I wish mum was around to hear the way her message to me has touched so many lives.
I remember a very funny time in my life just before I got to Africa. My paternal uncle was Sir Michael Spens, son of Lord Patrick Spens. Michael was keen to present me at court as a debutante in those days society girls had a season of dances and balls a kind of marriage market. Obviously to me, this was completely absurd but I had to humor Michael, and so I lined up in Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the Queen. I remember being surrounded by girls who said to me, “Don’t you dream of being a lady-in-waiting?” I replied, “Absolutely not – I want to live among wild animals.” They recoiled in horror. They thought I was very weird, but then I thought they were very weird, too.
I couldn’t afford to go to university so I got a secretarial job in London. Opportunity came with a letter from a school friend inviting me for a holiday to Kenya. (I worked as a waitress to save enough money to go.) And it was in Kenya that I met the eminent paleontologist, Dr Louis Leakey. He was impressed by my knowledge of African animals (I had read every book I could find) and sent me to observe chimpanzees in what was then Tanganyika. He felt that a knowledge of the primate most like us would help him to better understand the probable behavior of our Stone Age ancestors whose fossilized remains he was excavating. He took me despite my lack of academic credentials or even because of them as he wanted someone with a mind uncluttered by the reductionist scientific thinking of the time.
What an amazing opportunity. At first the chimpanzees ran away as soon as they saw me, but once I gained their trust I soon realized just how similar they are to us. It was an exciting day when I observed, for the first time, a chimpanzee using and making tools to “fish” termites from their nests. At that point, National Geographic offered to continue funding my research, and sent Hugo van Lawick, a talented film maker, to document the chimps’ behaviors. A year later Geographic wanted me to write an article for their magazine. And soon after that they made a documentary from Hugo’s film footage, narrated by Orson Welles.
: Gombe, Tanzania - Jane formed a close bond with young Fifi. (National Geographic Creative / Hugo van Lawick)
I had to go to America, attend a press conference and give a few talks. The media produced some rather sensational articles, emphasizing my blond hair and referring to my legs. Some scientists discredited my observations because of this but that did not bother me so long as I got the funding to return to Gombe and continue my work. I had never wanted to be a scientist anyway, as women didn’t have such careers in those days. I just wanted to be a naturalist. If my legs helped me get publicity for the chimps, that was useful.
After this Louis arranged for me to go to Cambridge University where I became the eighth person in their history to be admitted to work for a PhD without a BA. But to my dismay, I was quickly told that I had done my study all wrong. I should have numbered the chimps rather than given them names, and I could not talk about their personalities, minds or emotions as those features were unique to humans. I was told there is a difference between humans and all other animals. That way of thinking, of course, makes it easier to treat animals as things rather than sentient and sapient beings able to experience joy, fear, despair and pain. Easier to work in a factory farm or medical research laboratory and for us to enjoy the sport of trophy hunting.
But I understood the true nature of animals from my childhood teacher my dog, Rusty. So I knew that in this respect the Cambridge professors were wrong as does everyone who has shared their life in a meaningful way with a dog or a horse or a hamster or a bird. I stuck to my convictions and because the chimpanzees are so like us biologically as well as behaviorally, gradually scientists have become less reductionist. Indeed, animal personalities and emotions are now subjects for serious study, and there is a huge amount of research being conducted on the intelligence of animals ranging from chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins, to birds, octopuses and even some insects.
I was also told that scientists must be coldly objective and never show empathy for their “subjects.” But you can make observations that are absolutely scientifically accurate even while having empathy for the being you are studying. In fact, it can sometimes provide an intuition about the meaning of a certain behavior. You can then test your intuition with scientific rigor.
In chimp society there are good and bad mothers, and looking back over the years, we know that the offspring of mothers who were affectionate, protective but not over protective and, above all, supportive, tend to do better and to have more self-confidence. The males tend to rise to a higher position in their hierarchy and females are more successful as mothers – which is their main job. And throughout evolution this was important for the human female too – they needed to be patient, quick to understand the wants and needs of their infants before they could speak and good at keeping the peace between family members. If these qualities are, to some extent, handed down in our female genes, this may explain why women, so often, make good observers. This helped me, for Louis Leakey firmly believed that women made better field workers than men. Being a woman helped me in practical ways, too. Africa was just moving into independence and white males were still perceived as something of a threat, whereas I as a mere woman was not.
Because I succeeded in a scientific world largely dominated by men, I’ve been described as a feminist role model, but I never think of myself in that way. Although the feminist movement today is different, many women who have succeeded have done so by emphasizing their masculine characteristics. But we need feminine qualities to be both accepted and respected and in many countries this is beginning to happen. I love that the new movement involves women joining their voices together on social media, thus giving a sense of solidarity.
There are indigenous people in Latin America who have a saying that their tribe is like an eagle: one wing is male and one wing is female, and only when the wings are equally strong will their tribe fly high. And this, indeed, is worth fighting for.
JANE, premiering on National Geographic on Monday, March 12 at 8 p.m., documents how Dr. Goodall’s chimpanzee research challenged the male-dominated scientific consensus of her time and revolutionized our understanding of the natural world.
Dr. Jane Goodall DBE is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
Motto welcomes outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.
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