Source: Toronto Star
How might Rehtaeh Parsons’ life been different had her school offered a gender studies course?
“Instead of talking about what the girl did and how ‘she had this coming to her,’ the focus might have been on ‘how these guys go through life not knowing about consent?’ ” says Lara Shkordoff.
“It would have provided a safe space for students to talk about these things,” says Sarah Ghabrial.
Parsons is the Nova Scotia teenager who killed herself earlier this month, 1½ years after she was allegedly raped by three or four guys at a party who snapped a photo of their act and sent it around to her classmates as a trophy.
Shkordoff and Ghabrial are two of five young women we can thank for getting gender studies onto the Ontario high school curriculum starting next September. Finally.
It took them eight long, dogged years.
They launched their campaign while studying the University of Western Ontario, where for the first time they were exposed to women’s history, and feminist theory and the concept of gender as something that’s built, not born. They were taking women’s studies classes.
One day Ghabrial was hanging out in friend Sheetal Rawal’s dorm room, discussing yet another high school assault story. We’ve all heard it. We all know many Rehtaehs.
The girl was drunk at a party. She was sexually assaulted by a bunch of guys. On Monday, the guys were celebrated in the school hallways for their virility. The girl was branded a slut and ostracized.
“We pointed at each other and said, ‘There should be a women’s studies class in high school,’ ” says Rawal.
“We were trying to make life better for our younger selves,” says Ghabrial.
They launched a campaign, calling it “The Miss G Project for Equity in Education” after a young woman they’d learned about in class.
Miss G was the pseudonym of a woman who, amazingly for her times — the 1800s — went to university and graduated at the top of her class. But she died soon after and her doctor diagnosed her death as resulting from too much energy in brain, not enough in womb. “She was unable to make a good brain that could stand the wear and tear of life,” Dr. Edward Clarke wrote in his 1873 book Sex in Education, “and a good reproductive system that could serve the race.”
He called her simply Miss G. She was voiceless, nameless, forgotten. He became famous, using her story. A perfect synopsis of why women’s voices need to be heard and taught.
The five Western students figured that once the Minister of Education heard about their project, he’d surely see the light and introduce women’s studies into the curriculum.
It was their first foray into activism. They had no idea what awaited them.
“We didn’t even know what a deputy minister did,” says Rawal, now a lawyer. “When we met him, he said ‘Is this a course for girls?’ ”
Their story is a model case study for activists. The formula? Keep focused on one simple idea. Build bridges with everyone interested. Keep the message positive. Have fun along the way, with crochet parties and feminist read-ins on the lawn at Queen’s Park. And grind, grind, grind.
As their campaign stretched, it expanded from women’s studies to gender studies. Another gauge of time spent: one of their early supporters was Kathleen Wynne, who was parliamentary assistant to the then education minister, Gerard Kennedy.
“She picked up her own phone,” says Shkordoff, also a lawyer who is now at Harvard University studying for a master’s in public health. “Andrea Horwarth was a regular MPP and Deb Mathews had been just elected.”
Four of the five Miss G founders met me in a café near the University of Toronto Friday morning. They are Ms G’s now — 30 or nearing it. Two are married; the other two live with significant others. No kids, but soon maybe. They have an intimidating number of degrees between them.
They are smart, funny, beautiful, happy and very accomplished. So there, Dr. Clark!
Because of them, our daughters and sons will be able to talk about Rehtaeh Parsons and what happened to her inside the protected space of the classroom and not the war zone of school hallways.
I asked them for their advice to young, budding feminists looking to change the world.
“Go into science or technology or math. That’s an incredible part of the economy, and women need to be part of it,” says Shkordoff.
“There are talk-tavists and activists and there’s a difference,” says Dilani Mohan, now a lawyer. “It’s one thing to acknowledge a lot of problems and another to pick one thing and engage it.”
“Read books. Listen to music. Have conversations,” says Rawal.
“Make a difference,” says Ghabrial, who is finishing her PhD in history. “Alice Walker said activism is the rent you pay for living on this planet.”
I’m hoping they take on another massive bureaucracy over another daunting social problem. Say, the Harper government over the lack of affordable child care, or the ever-expanding work week.
They’re not sure. After eight years, they’re ready to celebrate for a while.
“To be decided,” Shkordoff says.
Catherine Porter usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org