Antonia House, Legal Intern – Kayan Feminist Organization
“In the past I have worked in the West Bank where, because of the overwhelming presence of military occupation, the women’s struggle often seems subordinate to the national struggle; it is less of a priority. What I admire about Kayan is that it is uncompromising in its work to empower Palestinian women in Israel – even when this means taking very critical stances – without relinquishing any of its national identity (…) When I was growing up, I was extremely lucky in that I didn’t really find myself in circumstances that required me to think much about ‘feminism,’ as such. Recently I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends, women who grew up feeling like they shouldn’t speak as much in school, they shouldn’t let others see how smart they were. But at home and at school I was always encouraged to speak, and was listened to with respect. I remember when I was eight, my math teacher – who always pointed out how the boys would raise their hands more than girls in classes like math and chess – said once, ‘I want a girl to answer the next question. But not Antonia!’ because I probably spoke even more than the boys in that class. I think I was 16 the first time I really experienced something like what my friends were talking about. I was at a conference with students from all over the world, and I was working in a group in which nobody was listening to my input. At first I was confused, and then I realised, ‘Oh, it’s because I’m a girl’ and I sort of took a step back and thought, ‘how strange…’ Obviously, that wasn’t the last time I found myself in such situations, but at that point I was old enough that I was already confident in my abilities. For women that are exposed to that kind of thing from a young age, I think it influences their confidence and sense of worth much more.
I grew up in a largely white, liberal middle-class society in New York City, so I’m among the most privileged in many ways. Still, I have to deal with many issues on a daily basis that men from the same background will never have to think about. Coming to the Middle East as a ‘western’ woman has also been a challenging experience in many ways, because of how we are perceived here, given the difference between sexual politics here and in the States – both of which are problematic.
Am I a feminist? Yes, absolutely. We live in a patriarchal society and the struggle to change that is essential. You know the slogan, ‘Feminism is the radical idea that women are people?’ I grew up with no question in my mind that women are equally capable and deserve the same respect and freedoms as men. It took me longer to fully comprehend how far from that ideal we are… Women define their personal goals and aspirations in many different ways, some more ‘traditional’ than others. But it’s not about what those aspirations are, it’s about empowering women to articulate and pursue their goals, as well as trying to remove the obstacles that stand in the way.”